We’re Fighting The Chaos

Note: This post discusses some matters from the UCU HEC meeting on 12 May 2022. Most of that meeting is highly confidential, but we checked with the chair that it was ok to share this bit and she confirmed that it was fine as it is not directly and immediately related to the disputes.

San Mateo, California. Bailing out a life boat at a United States Merchant Marine Cadet basic school. 1943.

4 cadets on a lifeboat full of water are bailing out while 9 are in the water mostly clinging to the sides.
Solving hard problems has to start somewhere.

I’m very pleased to announce that the motion proposed by Ruth Holliday (in her final HEC appearance for now) and Chris O’Donnell on student distribution passed with 23 for, 3 against, and 1 abstention.

UCU has taken a first, very important, step.

You can read some of the history of student distribution in HE in my TL;DR on the topic. I also had a failed version of a similar motion. Huge props to Ruth for igniting this successful attempt.

I’d also like to thank the 68 or so people who signed our support letter to HEC. Ruth sent it the morning before the meeting and I think the large and diverse support from members really helped!

We put this effort together very quickly. As I don’t have explicit permission to share names, I won’t, alas, share the list who signed the letter. I will take what data is safely anonymous and write it up in a future post. But here’s a teaser:

These are the responses to the question “How do student distribution issues affect, in your estimation, each of the 4Fights?” broken down by Fight:

All (≈64)Not at allSomeA fair bitDirectly and significantly
Pay6222412
Equalities1102924
Casualisation001644
Workload001747
These are the responses to the question “How do student distribution issues affect, in your estimation, each of the 4Fights?” broken down by Fight.

(Now, remember, very very self-selecting, filtered by agreeing to sign, etc. etc. I put it together in a couple of hours while doing other stuff. But I think it gives us a hint. We now need a robust version of this and other data to really come to grips with what the market in students is doing to the sector.)

As you can see, student distribution is intimately implicated in every single 4Fights issue.

I won’t share the qualitative feedback directly, but it was often heart-breaking. Some comments also provided new insights: one commenter pointed out that staff at under-recruiting institutions often face hidden but massive workload increases as they lose staff or are required to put in heroic efforts on recruitment, etc.

The debate was short as we were running out of time. The chair, Justine Mercer, worked very hard to keep it from falling off the agenda. We’re grateful to her.

In the debate, Saira Weiner, in a supportive statement, pointed out that this issue affects FE as well. This was a welcome observation and we look forward to working across sectors on this issue.

We learned a lot from the failed motions. Many folks really dislike the terms “cap” and “controls” and have genuine issues with how things were done during the era before the removal of all controls. And we do not have any consensus on solutions. But we do have a strong consensus across factions, groupings, university types, and hopefully sectors that there is a big problem here and UCU should act.

It’s been a long journey since Dave Hitchcock, Leon Rocha, and Mark Pendleton crafted the initial version of this motion. We have a long way to go, but thanks to Ruth and Chris and the HEC, we are now starting to row together. This is really important.

While the motion directs Union staff to do some work, they cannot do it alone, especially given all the other demands on their time. We, the members, are the union and we make things happen.

UCU Commons will be organizing an open-to-all collaboration on this issue to feed info, research design, and strategy insight in to UCU staff. Many of us are academics, part of what we do, what we train to do, is study problems and conduct research. Let’s put our collective skills to use and crack this problem, it truly affects us all.

We look forward to working with you.

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