Higher education conference hears of ‘systemic under funding’

Delegates met in Milton Keynes to tackle a wide-ranging agenda

UNISON assistant general secretary Jon Richards addressing the union's higher education conference in February 2024

Delegates to UNISON’s national higher education conference in Milton Keynes last week passed a raft of motions on a range of issues – from smashing the gender pay gap in the sector, to campaigning for insourcing, to fighting for members working in student unions, to equalities.

Addressing the conference, UNISON assistant general secretary Jon Richards (pictured above) said: “There have been funding challenges over the years and the Westminster government have shown they do not care about higher education.

“It is systemic underfunding that has seen all institutions facing financial worries and the erosion of student support has seen student poverty rates go through the roof.”

But, he concluded, “recognising there is a problem is one thing, doing something about it is another”.

For the service group executive, Joanne Tapper moved a motion on bringing outsourced services back in-house.

“So many universities continue to operate as a two-tiered workforce,” she said, “outsourcing and excluding colleagues such as cleaning staff, catering and security staff.”

Ms Tapper mentioned that many universities – including her own, University College London – continue to prioritise this agenda over a duty of welfare, dignity and respect to the very colleagues who are essential in maintaining these institutions.

Yet the importance of these roles had been highlighted even further during the pandemic.

“We deserve better and demand better,” she said. “We will stand up for each other’s rights – we will stand up for each other’s dignity”.

Also for the executive, Kath Owen moved a motion on UNISON members working in student unions.

“Student unions are fundamental to higher education, but are often overlooked,” she told delegates.

“In the last year, there have been some challenges. Post COVID, supporting students with complaints and appeals in the wake of changes to their programme; student finances, academic issues, welfare support, lobbying in universities – all work that is done by student unions.

“On the cost of living – setting up food banks, providing housing support, campaigning for better public transport, fighting to keep childcare provisions open – all work that is done by student unions.”

For the Cardiff Metropolitan University branch, Denn Yearwood spoke to the importance of securing the legacy of 2023’s Year of Black Workers in the sector.

“The future never comes quickly enough,” he said. “Change never comes quickly enough.

“We need to make a difference now, to make a difference for the future.

“We need to put our universities in a jam. We need to stop them getting away with the same old tropes… We need to grow together. We need that better future now.”