UCU Scotland conference – Beyond Covid: what next for Scottish higher education?

UCU Scotland is organising a major conference examining the future of higher education in Scotland.

The conference is taking place online over two afternoons:

1.30-4.00pm, Wednesday 15 September and 1.30-4.30pm, Friday 17 September 2021

The conference is open to any UCU member interested in the future of higher education or the other policy areas discussed.  We’ll examine the impact of the Covid pandemic on higher education in Scotland and what’s next for the sector.  The Scottish Funding Council’s recent review into post-16 education provides the backdrop along with UCU Scotland’s ‘Alternative vision for Scottish higher education’ paper.  Speakers over the two days include UCU general secretary Jo Grady, Scotland’s higher education minister Jamie Hepburn MSP, NUS UK president Larissa Kennedy on the Free Black University, fair access commissioner Peter Scott, and NUS Scotland president Matt Crilly.

On the Friday afternoon there will be a choice of workshops exploring policy areas in higher education including ‘Fair work and casualisation’, ‘Equality measures’, ‘Sustainability and a Just Transition’, and ‘Decolonisation’.

A final agenda and joining instructions will be sent to registered delegates. Attendance is free but spaces are limited – book now to ensure you have a place.  You can register here: 

Attendance is free but spaces are limited – book now to ensure you have a place.  You can register here: 

Beyond Covid: What now for Scottish higher education? Tickets | Eventbrite

UCU Scotland event on the IHRA definition of antisemitism

UCU Scotland recently organised an online event to inform members about the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which has already been adopted by several universities without consultation, and the UCU response to it. The event, led by UCU members and featuring speakers from across Scotland, informed members about the definition, why it is problematic, and what adoption of the definition does to academic freedom and the work of our members and students.

As a trade union working to end all forms of racism, including antisemitism, we continue to look for tools in this work – the IHRA definition, however, is not one of these. UCU on both a Scottish and UK level have clear policy on opposing the IHRA definition of antisemitism, since 2017. Also outside of UCU structures, groups of scholars (such as scholars of the Middle East, groups of Jewish scholars, Israeli Academics in the UK, Palestinian scholars and intellectuals) as well as individuals have vocally opposed the definition. Some other unions, however, and the Scottish Government, have adopted the definition.

 What, then, is the IHRA definition, and why is there so much opposition to it?

The definition and its problems

The Working Definition of Antisemitism published by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) in 2016 has since been adopted by some universities, institutions, the Scottish Government, and even some other trade unions. Indeed, the Conservative Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson instructed English universities to adopt the definition, or else face consequences. Despite Scottish universities not being obligated to do so, many have gone ahead anyway, often without any consultation of Jewish staff, academic experts, or trade unions.

Out first speaker Itamar Kastner (University of Edinburgh) outlined the IHRA definition, and why it is necessary to oppose it and look for alternatives. He noted that the definition consists of a brief definition and a list of examples, with some of these examples referencing critiques of Israel as being anti-Semitic.

Laying out the critiques of the definition, highlighting his position as a Jewish and Israeli member of staff, Itamar pointed out that the definition is too vague: it actually does not provide useful guidance on what counts as antisemistism. It is also often performative: institutions adopt the definition, but do not engage in any actual work to combat antisemitism or adopt a uniform anti-racist agenda; it does not add anything to the already existing Equality Act 2010 or institutional policies on equalities. The definition itself, by branding criticisms of Israel as anti-Semitic, constricts academic freedom and free speech, and we have already seen examples of it being used to silence pro-Palestinian academics and activists.

Lack of consultation and calls for action

Both Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, as Itamar and our next speaker Rhys Machold (University of Glasgow) outlined, adopted the definition without proper consultation with staff or trade unions, with uncertain input from EDI committees. In both institutions, UCU members have set up local working groups to lobby senior management and reach clarity on how and why decisions were made.

Following the framing of the issue by the above members, a Palestinian student from the University of Glasgow gave a harrowing account of how the IHRA definition had been used to constrict their research, hindering their academic career, with them being been told that their dissertation topic was ‘antisemitic’ due to its examination of Israeli violence against Palestinians, and additionally having their own life experience questioned and circumscribed. Listening to this student, members at the event expressed solidarity and regret at the treatment of the speaker in question, and we thanked them for their contribution.

Henry Maitles (University of the West of Scotland) and Samer Abdelnour (University of Edinburgh) both shared local and international experiences. Henry shared his experience of, being Jewish himself, being called anti-Semitic when calling Israel a racist state and ended by calling for a strengthening of pro-Palestinian work in the form of Boycott, Divest, Sanction. Samer noted the international adoption of the IHRA definition severely constricting solidarity with Palestinians, giving examples from Germany, and shared his criticisms also of the alternative Jerusalem Definition.

Taking a step back from local and international contexts, Mary Senior (UCU Scotland official) and Jenny Sherrard (UCU UK Head of Equality) came in to update participants on UCU’s UK and Scottish work. Mary, who has emailed all principals at Scottish universities enquiring about their position and laying out UCU policy on the issue, reported back on the number of universities that have adopted, rejected, or are consulting with staff.

The event ended with Carlo Morelli (University of Dundee) calling for solidarity with the Palestinian people, and giving a slightly more hopeful view from Dundee, where the university are now in fact consulting with staff and trade unions on whether or not to adopt the IHRA definition.

Where to now?

Throughout the event, discussion and expressions of solidarity were had in the event chat, with participants commenting on having learned and wanting to get more involved in UCU’s work on this. Whether we lobby for alternative definitions, or a more all-encompassing approach against all forms of racism, as Itamar noted at the start of the event ‘we want our institutions to adopt a uniform, comprehensive anti-racist approach’.

Two of the speakers have agreed to co-organise a Scotland-wide working group on the IHRA definition on antisemitism. If you want to get involved, please contact them: Itamar Kastner (itamar.kastner@ed.ac.uk) and Carlo Morelli (c.j.morelli@dundee.ac.uk).


(thanks to Itamar Kastner and Samer Abdelnour for these):

Overview of some problems with the definition (Gordon and LeVine)

Thorough FAQ by the UCL branch of UCU

Letter by the Israeli Academics in the UK

Stern-Weiner (2021). The politics of a definition: How the IHRA working definition of antisemitism is being misrepresented

Abdelnour (2021). The Jerusalem Declaration’s Fatal Flaw

Resolutions of UCU Scotland Congress 2021 – resolution 16 ‘Rejecting the IHRA definition

Equality resolutions of UCU UK Congress –  resolutions 12 – 14 on IHRA issues

UCU letter to Gavin Williamson – November 2020

UPDATED: UK Research & Innovation cuts to Official Development Assistance

UCU opposed the £120m proposed cuts to the Official Development Assistance budget when they were announced in March 2021. As part of our work on the issue UCU’s Scotland official, Mary Senior, wrote last week to the higher education minister in the Scottish Government, Jamie Hepburn MSP, asking the Scottish Government to oppose the cuts. She also wrote to Iain Stewart MP, the UK Government’s under secretary of state for Scotland asking the UK government to rethink its actions which will impact not only on Scottish universities but also internationally.

You can read the two letters below:

UPDATE AUGUST 2021: We’ve now received responses to the letters from the UK and Scottish governments. Letters can be read below:

Covid update for branches – 1 July 2021

UCU Scotland priorities for the new academic year re Covid

UCU Scotland has set out its priorities for the new academic year in the context of Covid-19. Branches are encouraged to use these priorities in local negotiations, along with discussions with members, students associations and local politicians. 

The latest UCU branch action note gathers together information on the emerging Covid-19 risk factors and other relevant information to support branches in updating risk assessments. Branches are asked to review and update risk assessments: UCUBANAB25.pdf | UCUBANAB25.rtf

Joint guidance “Raising a concern – What to do if a health and safety concern is identified”  has been developed between employers’ body UCEA and joint trade unions, and branches can use as a basis for negotiating local escalation procedures.

As always please be in touch with scotland@ucu.org.uk for any further support or guidance on liaising with employers.

Latest from the Scottish Government and the Advanced Learning Covid Recovery Group

UCU continues to participate in the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) making representations based on our agreed priorities, and it is proposed that updated guidance for our sector in a “beyond level 0” context will be published next week.  We’ll share it with branches as soon as it is available.

In the meantime the expert subgroup advising the CRG has published an advice note which will be of interest to branches.

All adults who have not yet received their first Covid vaccination can register online to receive their vaccination.

Parliament is now in recess, and there were no substantive changes for our sector in the First Minister’s Covid-19 update statement on Tuesday.    A reminder of two recent Scottish Government updates:

  • Review of physical distancing – this plans to reduce social distancing from 2 metres indoors to 1 metre from 19 July, and end physical distancing altogether as of 9 August.
  • Beyond level 0 – strategic framework update – which changes the government’s overall strategy from suppressing the virus to the lowest possible level, to one which suppresses the virus to a level consistent with alleviating its harms.  This strategy envisages a removal of the majority of restrictions as of 9 August.

Full details of current local authority levels:  https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-protection-levels/

Scottish Government sectoral guidance for universities and colleges was updated on 26 May.   

Sectoral guidance for laboratories and research facilities was updated on 2 June, this includes the sector advice card for labs and research facilities which branches are urged to share this with members working in labs/research facilities.

Scottish Government – reporting Health and Safety concerns

A reminder to reps and activists of the Scottish Government inbox where trade unions can report any health and safety or other Covid-19 concerns.   

Email: scottishtradeunioncovidenquiries@gov.scot

UCU Scotland organising award 2020/21

UCU Scotland congress 2021 again took place online as a consequence of the Covid pandemic. This year the organising award was given to the Glasgow university branch in recognition of their ground breaking workload campaign and workload inspections, both of which treat workload as a health and safety issue. The award was presented by Vicky Blake, UCU’s UK president who congratulated the branch on this important work. Well done to Glasgow UCU branch. Pictured below are UCU Glasgow president Jeanette FIndlay, and honorary secretary Craig Daly.

Palestine strike

On Tuesday 18 May a general strike in Palestine was called by, among others, the General Union of Palestinian Teachers. UCU stands in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom, justice and equality. The UK government must demand an immediate end to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza & the illegal occupation, and work to uphold the Palestinian people’s inalienable rights.

First UCU Scotland Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Network meeting

First UCU Scotland Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Network meeting, Tuesday 11 May, 5-6pm

UCU Scotland is excited to start a network for Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) members, as one way of improving democratic representation within our union, addressing the institutional racism which keeps white people overrepresented and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic members underrepresented in leadership roles at a Scottish level.

Recent UCU Scotland congresses have passed a number of motions on addressing institutional racism within institutions including UCU, and noted that good practice includes not only addressing barriers but also proactively setting up networks, and at this year’s congress we passed a motion on decolonising institutions. We hope that this meeting will be just one of many initiatives at improving union representation.

If you are a Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic member of the union, please join the initial network meeting Tuesday 11 May, 5-6pm. You register for the event by emailing scotland@ucu.org.uk, and for any questions or expressions of interest in joining the network (if you are unable to make the first meeting) contact the co-chairs Dania Thomas (dania.thomas@glasgow.ac.uk) and Sarah Liu (sarah.liu@ed.ac.uk). We hope to see you there!

Scottish parliament elections 2021: party manifestos and higher education

The Scottish Parliament elections take place on 6 May.  As always, education is significant in the parties’ manifestos.  This time much of the focus is on the role of schools and the post-Covid recovery but higher education is also prominent too.

Much of UCU Scotland’s policy work over the past year has focused on the development of a paper called ‘The Future of Scottish Higher Education; An alternative vision for universities’.  The paper, written by the union’s education committee and launched at our hustings for the elections details what our higher education system could look like with the will and intervention of the next Scottish government.  A shorter summary was produced from the longer paper that UCU members and branches have been encouraged to share with candidates.

The longer alternative vision paper formed the basis of the union’s public affairs work with the Scottish parties as they developed their manifestos.  Through speaking to politicians and meetings with policy leads, the paper was the blueprint outlining the union’s manifesto asks.

Below we set out summaries of the higher education references in the main Scottish political parties’ manifestos.  In addition a number of the parties also mentioned student specific areas including on mental health and bursary funding.

SNP manifesto: Contains a commitment to advocate for Scotland’s involvement in the existing EU Erasmus programme.  The manifesto describes how the SNP commissioned a Scottish Funding Council (SFC) review of the coherence and sustainable delivery of higher education and are awaiting findings.  It states they will respond to the findings to ensure robust further and higher education systems.

Labour manifesto: Talks about universities being ‘anchor institutions’ in their communities and they have a role in raising employment standards.  The manifesto indicates they will address low pay in the sector and the use of short-term and zero-hour contracts with ‘good work’ requirements for universities accessing funding.  They refer to Implementing the von Prondzynski recommendation on addressing senior staff pay in universities to bring senior pay into national pay negotiations.

Greens manifesto: Includes plans to widen access to higher education, including removing financial barriers and acting on the recommendations of the Commission on Widening Access.  The manifesto refers to measures to allow universities to oppose the marketisation of higher education and to allow universities to distance themselves the REF and TEF.  It commits to make additional university funding through the SFC contingent on eliminating casual and insecure contracts and raising the wages of the lowest paid staff.

Lib Dem manifesto: The manifesto talks about them robustly funding universities and commits to stronger support through the SFC for research.  Also commits to establishing an international scheme to allow Scottish students to study abroad and EU students to come here, on top of the Turing scheme.  The manifesto refers to funding additional places for Scottish students in universities and encouraging universities to widen access

Conservative manifesto:  Commits to free university tuition and proposes a review of post-18 education in Scotland.

STUC congress 2021

UCU’s Olufemi Ilesanmi speaks to STUC congress on Erasmus plus

The 2021 STUC congress took place between Monday 19 and Wednesday 21 April.  As in 2020 the congress took place online.  This year’s congress was chaired by UCU’s Mary Senior, this year’s STUC president.  The UCU delegates were Carlo Morelli (delegation leader), Jo Grady, Vicky Blake, Lena Wånggren, Ann Gow, Ian Ellis, Marion Hersh, Ann Swinney, Grant Buttars, Thomas Greenough, Eurig Scandrett, Kate Sang, Catriona Mowatt, James Richards, Chis O’Donnell, Olufemi Ilesanmi and Jenny Brownrigg.

UCU submitted a motion on higher education funding and amended three others.  We amended one to include reference to higher education in a motion on digital poverty; highlighted the increased workload in higher education as a result of Covid; and called for Scotland to remain in the Erasmus plus scheme.  As was the case last year given the nature of the online congress, the majority of motions were composited.  All the composites UCU had an interest in (either containing our original motion or our amendments) passed.  UCU delegates spoke in the debates with Jo Grady speaking on the Monday on digital poverty and Lena Wanngren speaking on Tuesday on higher education funding.  Olufemi Ilesanmi spoke on the final day on Erasmus.

Marion Hersh moved a UCU emergency motion on proposed cuts to the USS pension and the situation on pensions at Dundee and Abertay universities.   The emergency motion also passed. The wording of the motions can be found here and a record of decisions here

UCU also held a fringe meeting following the congress on ‘Trade unions, climate justice, and COP26’ with speakers including UCU president Vicky Blake, UCU Scotland vice president Lena Wanngren, UCU member and member of the Just Transition Partnership Eurig Scandrett, and the Just Transition Partnership’s Matthew Crighton.  The fringe meeting was recorded and can be viewed here: