Until last week, Cambridge was the only public university in the UK not to recognise the University and College Union (UCU). After years of campaigning from members, the union’s national leader, Jo Grady, visited Cambridge on Friday (10/03) to sign a recognition agreement, which will soon be ratified by the University.

Straight after the signing ceremony on Sidgwick site, Varsity spoke to Grady about working conditions in Cambridge, tuition fees and the impact of six years of strikes on students. We also discussed the role of women in trade unions, and why she’s “not that bothered about Keir Starmer”.

Over two years ago, the UCU launched the ‘Recognition NOW’ campaign to increase pressure on Cambridge to recognise the union. To Grady, the reason for the University’s delay in recognising the union is very simple: “They didn’t want to”. She credited the victory to “determined work by the union”, supported by students who agreed that the University had been “systematically stonewalling” the UCU.

“Cambridge is one of the worst abusers of precarious contracts in the sector”

Grady said although she’s glad Cambridge has now “caught up with everybody else”, the new agreement is still “not enough”, calling on the University to “do the right thing” and extend the deal further so the union can “crackdown on zero-hour-contracts”. The UCU leader told Varsity that “Cambridge is one of the worst abusers of precarious contracts in the sector”, despite having “more than enough money to pay people properly”.

Grady claimed the higher education sector is “built on a dirty secret” because “people who are very well qualified… are subjected to terms and conditions that are so low”. Grady said that when students are paying such high fees they “need to know the people who are supervising them are being paid minimum wage”. Working conditions, casualisation and pay are key battles in the union’s current nationwide strike action, which continues this week, following a two week pause.

UCU members celebrate the recognition agreementDaniel Hilton

The University’s recent recognition of the UCU is not the only shift in attitudes towards strike action that Cambridge has seen in recent weeks. This month’s SU election saw a new president, Fergus Kirman, elected with a mandate to campaign for tuition fee refunds due to strike action. Grady called pushing for tuition fee refunds a “tricky one” and branded the policy as “attractive in a debate” but criticised it for “completely missing what is a very real discussion of disadvantage”.

Grady told Varsity that her personal political position is that “there shouldn’t be fees”, citing that the “ability to go to university should not be dependent on what is now your appetite to take out lifetime debt. And it definitely shouldn’t rely on whether or not you have the bank of mum and dad to fall back on… I personally don’t want to conflate that with ‘I should get a fee rebate’.”

She continued: “No one should be paying fees, no one should be getting into debt, and no one should be paying eye-watering inflation on a debt they shouldn’t have had to get into… I suspect once you calculate what you’ve lost due to strikes, it’s probably not the big ticket money that you’re hoping it is. So let’s not get distracted by something that feels like a campaign win, but is actually a bit cheap”.

“We’re not funding the system properly. And it’s only working because we’re exploiting people in it”

Grady also said that students who believe that the UCU’s demands cannot be met without tuition fee increases are wrong and “fundamentally misunderstand the way in which fees replace lost funding from government.” “The amount you pay in fees is nothing to do with my pension”, she told Varsity. “And it’s certainly nothing to do with the amount of casual contracts that the university has. It’s nothing to do with unsustainable workloads.”

Universities UK, who represent the institutions on the other side of the negotiating table, claim that tuition fees not rising with inflation has meant that “universities have had to do more with less and make up the shortfall on the cost of teaching and support from elsewhere in budgets”.

Grady argued that universities “can’t say that we have to put up fees in order to pay black staff properly. And it’s not the case, but if in order to do these things, student fees have to go up, we need to have a conversation about why has the government allowed a business model to develop in higher education that is only sustainable by systematically exploiting people and paying already marginalised people less than their white colleagues. And that is not about student fees at that point. That’s about stepping back and saying: ‘We’re not funding the system properly. And it’s only working because we’re exploiting people in it’.”

“[Misogynistic] culture doesn’t come out of nowhere — it takes lots of people to cover it up”

Gender, ethnicity and disability pay gaps in higher education have been a campaigning issue for the UCU for years, but trade unions have their own histories of sexism to tackle. When asked about misogyny in trade unionism, Grady highlights the success of women such as Christina McAnea and Sharon Graham, who lead Unison and Unite respectively — but admits that “the values that are associated with trade unions are quite masculine, and that doesn’t change, regardless of who the leader is.”

Grady began as UCU general secretary in 2019, after a career lecturing in industrial relations at Sheffield and Leicester universities. She grew up in the British trade union movement, with her father taking part in the 1984 miner’s strike, and has seen the role of women in unions evolve throughout her life.

The UCU leader told us there are “pockets of actually real traditional masculine, sometimes actually not very pleasant cultures” in British unions. Citing the recent report into sexual harassment at TSSA and previous findings of misogyny at GMB union, Grady said: “That culture doesn’t come out of nowhere — it takes lots of people to cover it up”. She is optimistic about the future though, claiming unions are “particularly seeing positive change often, when [they] have women, and women of colour, sometimes migrant women, right in the thick of it and pushing forward on change”.

UCU members across the country will strike for three days this week, though only one date (15/03) falls inside Cambridge’s Lent termDaniel Hilton

The UCU’s current industrial action is far from an isolated event — 2023 marks their sixth consecutive year of strikes in Cambridge and other universities across the country. Though specific aims have changed, the issues contended by the UCU have broadly remained the same since 2018, with members demanding action from the university on pay, pensions, equality and casualisation. We put it to Grady that many students feel that strikes have caused unjustified disruption to their education, given slow progress towards meeting the union’s demands.

Grady expressed that she “really feels” for students who have had their education severely disrupted by strikes, but claims “university employers systematically show that actually they don’t care for students as much as they suggest they do… if they did, they wouldn’t let industrial action happen as an annual event”.

The UCU leader said students “might not feel like going on a picket line”, but that they should complain to their universities, rather than “getting angry at the person that’s not working”. Grady stressed that “even from a pragmatic point of view, if you want the strikes to finish, a good outcome for the staff is what you need to be rooting for”.

“I’m not really that bothered about Keir Starmer”

Finally, we asked about how the UCU’s strikes fit into the national picture as industrial action escalates in industries from health to transport. In particular, we asked whether she was optimistic about a future Labour government taking workers rights more seriously. Last year, Keir Starmer came under fire for banning shadow cabinet members from attending picket lines to support striking workers — but Grady said “I’m not really that bothered about Keir Starmer”. Grady told us that the Labour party as a whole had not been supportive enough of any trade union, though she did praise their education team.


Mountain View

Huge Cambridge turnout as UK faces largest strike day in decade

She concluded that “if we want positive change in the Labour Party, as trade unionists, we have to drag them into our territory, not throw stones…I just don’t think you get positive change by negative campaigning”.

UCU members across the country are striking for three days this week, and a further three next week, though only one date (15/03) falls inside Cambridge’s Lent term. Grady told us that her “sincere hope” is that “we’re getting near to a settlement that means we won’t have this kind of chaos”, but members are currently voting to extend the union’s national mandate to strike for a further six months.