Why education unions matter to staff and students alike
8-14 Feb 2016 is heartunions week. To mark the week, Left Foot Forward are running a series of articles about trade unions. You can find out more at heartunions.org
The government’s recent green paper for higher education set out an ambition to improve the quality of teaching at universities. Its premise is clear – students are now paying a whopping £9,000 a year for university teaching, so it better be worth their while.
Strikingly absent from the green paper, though, is any recognition that the working conditions of education staff have an impact on the quality of education they can deliver. But it’s an issue that we ignore at students’ peril.
Currently, excessive student-to-staff ratios, insecure employment, and unreasonable workloads in education undermine the capacity of staff to deliver the best teaching, learning, and student support of which they are capable.
People are often surprised to hear that over 40 per cent of academic staff at universities are employed on non-permanent contracts, but hourly-paid and casual contracts are endemic across further and higher education.
Staff in precarious employment have less time to respond to students, mark work and prepare their lessons. Often, they also have less access to professional development and resources like IT and photocopying. These factors all have an impact on quality.
Trade unions have a vital role in fighting for better contracts. And it’s because the working conditions of staff are also the learning conditions of students that strong trade unions benefit everyone. The same is true in schools, colleges, universities and beyond – the better supported the teaching staff are, the better their ability to deliver high-quality learning.
Worryingly, though, if the government’s Trade Union Bill goes through it will a lot harder for unions to secure crucial improvements to working conditions in the future.
The bill seeks to undermine the position of trade unions and weaken their ability to fight for those same improvements which are central to education quality.
Through a combination of arbitrary ballot thresholds, picketing restrictions and beefed-up powers for the regulator, the bill will tie trade unions up in red tape and reduce their capacity to take effective industrial action in pursuit of better terms and conditions for staff.
Alongside the bill, the government wants to allow agency staff to cover striking workers. This proposal is also a major threat to education quality as it could lead to unqualified, non-specialist agency workers taking on the work of expert staff in the event of a strike.
Not only would this deepen tensions during a dispute, it would pose a big reputational risk to colleges and universities.
The Trade Union Bill will tip the balance of power massively in favour of employers. It is a pernicious piece of legislation which fails to recognise the important contribution made by trade unions to improving quality in public services and beyond.
The best guide to any service is the morale of those who work in it – that morale will be significantly reduced if there is no effective recourse against intransigent education employers.
We must continue to make the case that the working conditions of university and college staff are an education matter, and we must resist the attempts of this government to stifle trade union activities in pursuit of a better deal for education workers. Otherwise, it is future generations of students who will pay the price.
Sally Hunt is the general secretary of the University and College Union
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