UNISON Higher Education Conference 2016
February 2016, Southport Conference Centre, Southport
This was my first full-on Unison conference, a whole day of debates and motions, and the first time I’d travelled away from London on behalf of the branch. I have previously been to London Region conferences, half-day events, this was on a bigger scale. Actually, it didn’t seem that much larger as it was only our sector, Higher Education, but it was at national level and therefore a first opportunity to see Unison nationally. I was half of a two-person team with Rosie Blake, a new activist and hopefully soon-to-be steward.
So, we gathered in the conference centre on the Thursday morning and business began quite briskly. Procedures were explained and the motions introduced. Many were fairly uncontroversial and passed, if not unanimously, by very large majorities. In some cases there were amendments that were happily received as improving the original motion. The Final Agenda can be found here: https://www.unison.org.uk/content/uploads/2016/01/2016-Higher-Education-Conference-Final-Agenda.pdf
Motion 1, ‘Don’t Do A Clegg’ was passed quickly and was concerned with university fees. It was followed by motions on voter registration, the Trades Unions Bill, Assessing the value of the race equality charter mark, and then we can to a thorny discussion of Prevent (Motion 6.)
Everybody is against the Prevent strategy which many feels turns us into government spies, with a bias against Moslems, (see this Guardian article : http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/mar/09/anti-radicalisation-prevent-strategy-a-toxic-brand) the feeling was that the original motion was rather weak and did not protest against Prevent, so we had the odd situation of the proposer of an amendment asking us to pass the amendment, but refuse the motion! This motion was batted back and forth through the day.
There were also motions on, among other things, LGBT workers overseas, ‘Higher education deserves fair pay’ and ‘New ways of working and reasonable adjustments’ from the National Disabled Members Committee.
Vacant positions in higher education increasingly appear to be filled by short-term student contracts rather than the recruitment of permanent staff, be it professional, para-professional or non-professional roles.The issues surrounding commitment, reliability and de-professionalisation were discussed with further research and discussion regarding this practice planned for the near future.
At the end of the day the Prevent motion was finally dismissed, and after a degree of fractiousness and frustration all round, with the original proposers of the motion wishing they’d put together something tougher and more critical. This gave an edge to what had otherwise been a friendly and comradely event.
At the end of the day somebody gave a presentation on ABB (Activity Based Budgeting). This seemed wholly unsuited for the end of a long and busy day, when people were already starting to leave and brains were tired and not really at their best for taking in a rather technical-seeming and diagram-laden presentation, it brought out some rather aggressive questioning and slightly soured the day. It was clearly a bad decision to include it, and most people were simply not prepared for it, the presentation was not on the agenda, although I gather it had been announced, I think in Standing Orders. It seems a shame that this was rather mismanaged as the rest of the day went smoothly, the atmosphere was usually good and the motions relevant. I found it a worthwhile experience and will certainly consider attending future conferences.
Stuart Inman (with contributions from Rosie Blake)