There has been relatively little discussion about Brexit at UCU VP hustings. This may be due to collective levels of despair and ferocity of views held, but as a union we MUST be on top of the issues, as strongly as possible. While it may might feel easier to panic and disappear into a black hole of doom over current state of Brexit, as a trade union we must always look for ways to defend, protect and improve the situation for our members, and for society.
An “official” UCU position on Brexit has never entered policy via annual Congress, though motions have been passed in relation to the potential impact of Brexit. This was the reason cited for holding an online membership consultation which found that UCU members were heavily in favour of having a referendum on the Brexit deal (members were not asked about the prospect of a 2nd “Brexit referendum” per se). Of the 29, 499 members who voted, 89% were in favour of a referendum over a deal, though with Parliament still in a mess and with a “no deal” risk looming, this horse rather seems to have bolted.
Like many people, and for good reasons, I am deeply concerned about the impact of Brexit on staff and students in our sector, on all of us more generally — especially the most vulnerable, whether that vulnerability springs from financial precarity, migration status, or health concerns (especially in light of potential interruptions and delays to key medication stocks). Parliament is in a shameful mess about one of the biggest and most fundamental changes the UK has faced in a very long time.
Brexit poses enormous risks to our working rights. The TUC have clearly laid out why all workers have cause for concern. While equality, employment, and health and safety standards we have now will remain in place after the UK withdraws from the EU, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act contains zero guarantees that these standards won’t be downgraded or removed by future governments. After we leave the EU, the rights we now enjoy via EU legislation will no longer be protected in the same way: ministers will be able to mess with our employment rights after we leave. We need to fight alongside the rest of the trade union movement to ensure workers’ rights are not swept away under cover of Brexit.
In post-16 education, Brexit poses risks to the financial security of universities and colleges. I am very worried that Brexit will be used as “cover” in which to ground (bogus) excuses for unethical employment practices. Further pressure on the ability to secure funding will likely intensify the exploitation of casualised workers in our universities. This constriction of funding availability will hit arts and humanities subjects even harder. When we look back to May’s now rejected ‘deal’, there was scant useful detail on the real long-term impact of Brexit on education or research. For example, while the documentation indicated there would be an ‘expectation’ of continuing access to Horizon 2020 research funding and the Erasmus scheme, it was not clear how secure those initial positive signs would really pan out to be, particularly post-2020. Given the current offerings for a possible deal look rather similar to May’s original deal, the impending danger of a no deal Brexit, we may not even be able to afford that level of optimism. Considering the hostile environment and growing costs associated with immigrating into the UK, these combined conditions look set to speed up the brain drain of bright researchers.
A no deal Brexit would be the worst possible form our exit could take. I was recently quoted in the Times Higher on the risks this will entail. All possible routes forward pose risks, but the prospect of ‘no deal’ without access to EU research funding represents an impending disaster for higher education in the UK. UCU needs to fight hard to oppose this being translated into more pay cuts, intensified casualisation, further downgrading, and job losses. In Further Education, in desperate need of guaranteed additional funding even before Brexit, we face further gaps in teaching provision if migrant workers currently in post choose, or are forced to leave the UK. We are doing valuable work already, in showing that job cut proposals arise from wasteful budgets overseen by senior managements themselves enjoying very high pay, and in exposing their corruption. Taking control of the budget discourse will help us to protect our most vulnerable members, especially when Brexit comes to pass.
We need to build on concrete work already being done by UCU branches in FE and HE. For example, the forensic accounting commissioned by staff at Bangor has exposed their senior management’s plans for redundancies as choice to reallocate costs “towards the University estate and away from staff and other overhead costs”. In other words, Bangor, which has a healthy surplus in the bank, is choosing to priortise buildings over the staff who teach in them. This thread makes it just how clear that proposed job cuts are an ideological choice, not a necessity. In FE, accounts are often shrouded in mystery. Bridgwater and Taunton College UCU have recently persuaded their management to at least provide access to their accounts in a context where increasing numbers of colleges are landing in serious trouble over financial mismanagement. We know money is there but we must continue to expose how it is spent. As in HE, many colleges have seen vast capital expenditure and eye-watering salary and benefits packages for principals and senior managers while staff take a real-terms pay cut.
The worsening, poisonous atmosphere of debate over Brexit has already exacerbated societal divisions. Brexit narratives and fallout are connected to increased hostility towards all migrant groups, including — but importantly not limited to — EU citizens. The sudden realisation of how Brexit will hit EU nationals living and working in the UK has brought up difficult conversations about how non-EU migrants have long been treated by the UK’s immigration regime, which is growing more costly and difficult to navigate. Immigration restrictions and charges mean many migrant workers are subject to what amounts to an enormous financial penalty, often before they even begin work or receive their first paycheck. While policy has been created in support of migrant workers and international staff in the past, UCU has not always attended closely enough to the lived experiences of migrant workers and international staff, or responded quickly enough to the needs of members and potential members who are marginalised on the basis of their immigration status.
We need to fight hard for all our international members including EU nationals. Universities and colleges must take meaningful action to protect and advocate for all EU and non-EU international staff. For example, the hostile environment makes a mockery of the positioning of UK universities as international sites of cutting edge research and teaching because talented academics from the EU and elsewhere are made to feel increasingly unwelcome in a UK that may decide to throw them out even after many years of contributing to research and the economy. A huge amount of teaching work and work that goes into the general running of our education establishments is done by migrant workers and international staff.
As a minimum starting point, support from our employers must include covering (while robustly opposing) extortionate immigration fees, rocketing NHS surcharge costs, providing legal support, and lobbying government. In my branch (Uni of Leeds UCU) we successfully negotiated reimbursements for staff ‘indefinite leave to remain’ applications and tier 1 visa applications. We also successfully negotiated that the university would cover cost of applying to the EU settlement scheme (£65) and since that charge has been waived, we continue to argue money reserved for this should be put towards covering further immigration costs for international staff and their families. Uni of Sheffield UCU have recently won agreement from their management to cover the cost of the NHS surcharge for non-EU international staff. These wins, and the incredible work being done by International and Broke, must form the basis of a much bolder, broader campaign from UCU. For this campaign to be truly member-led, it’s also vital that we address the woeful lack of representational structures for migrant workers and international staff in UCU.
Our current government is NOT fit for purpose. As such, I am in favour of a General Election. I’m glad pushing for a General Election is UCU policy because austerity & the hostile environment are literally killing people. We must have free movement. The “Brexit Shambles” fiasco in Parliament has exacerbated but also masked many of these issues from media attention and public view.
I voted to remain in 2016, not because I am blind to the faults of the EU or its treatment of migrants & refugees on its borders but because I was very worried about the impact of Brexit. The poisonous nature of the referendum ‘debate’ was a prelude to the horrible mess we have now. While I’d personally like to remain in the EU (despite its faults) I am realistic that a second Brexit referendum would also hold dangers (social/political unrest included) and evades dealing with many of the problems listed above. If there is any *democratically legitimate* way to keep the UK in the EU I’m all for it, but that is fraught with issues. UCU will not be able to “solve” the Brexit problems (and we might wonder if the people currently paid a lot to run the UK are capable either). What we can and must do is focus on protecting our members, workers’ rights, rights of people unable to work, and our communities. This would still be true with or without Brexit, but I believe key to this wider fight is getting rid of the pro-austerity, shambolic party currently in government.