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Bill Rammell - University and College Union (UCU) conference
Manchester Central - 30 May 2008

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Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you again this year.

This is the second UCU event I've attended in a fortnight. At the first, on 14 May, I had the great pleasure to endorse your annual Life Changers awards. That reminded me of something important. That the work UCU members do in their colleges and universities does indeed change lives because it gives the hope of a better future to individuals, families and communities.

That's a thought on which I want to expand in several ways today.

But I want to start with the work of the UCU as a Trade Union.

I've been a trade unionist for thirty years, and I know that unions, the UCU included, serve a lot of different purposes. I want to mention three.

First, all unions see safeguarding the pay and conditions of their membership as a key function, and rightly so. Of course, in further and higher education, pay negotiations and the bargaining machinery are matters for you and colleges and universities. But I would urge that both sides do everything possible to avoid pay negotiations escalating into action that threatens to disrupt learners' progress.

Second, since the first trade unions were established, they have seen themselves as learning organisations and continuously affirmed the benefits of learning to their members and the wider world. To help you do more of this, we created the Union Learning Fund in 1998 and, in 2003, introduced a statutory right to time off with pay for Union Learning Representatives to carry out their duties. In many senses Union Learning has been the unsung success story of the relationship between the Unions and this Government.

You'll also have seen, and I hope welcomed, our recent announcement that we plan to legislate to give workers the right to request time off for training from their employers. Radical, affirmative action to improve the lives of working people.

Third, some unions, and perhaps especially the UCU, see an important role for themselves as campaigning organisations. For example, your national officers have campaigned for the reintroduction of student grants. Two-thirds of new entrants to university this autumn will be getting grants.

When I look at the list of motions for this conference, or even at the press notices on your website, it's clear that we potentially have plenty to disagree about. That there are plenty of things about this Government's policies that you don't like.

But at the same time, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that there are big things for which we've worked and campaigned together. And plenty of successes that we've had together over the past 11 years.

For example, we both believe in the need to invest more public money in further and higher education. That's why we are spending 23% more on higher education in real terms than we were in 1997. Expenditure on further education is already more than 50 per cent higher in real terms than it was when we came to power.

We also both believe that people should have a more equal chance of getting into higher education.

There are 300,000 more university students in England alone today than a decade ago. Participation by students from state schools, by young people from lower socio-economic groups and from low participation neighbourhoods have all increased.

There are a lot of other things we agree on, too.

I know that you see the Post-16 Forum which we established last year as a very positive development. We need a forum that will allow us to discuss issues strategically and plan for the longer term. Another example of what I mean, of our working together towards a positive outcome, is what we've done to quantify and then close the funding gap between schools and further education colleges.

The gap was at more than 14 per cent in 2004/05. Measures already taken have closed the gap by 5 percentage points in 2006/07 and we expect it to have narrowed by a further 3 points by 2008/09.

This is progress. It doesn't mean our further and higher education system is perfect. It certainly doesn't mean that today it's anywhere near as good as people need and deserve. But it does show that we've moved a long way and in the right direction. Constructive dialogue - not megaphone diplomacy - right across the sector and especially between the trade unions and the Government, has helped a lot in that.

But of course, and as I've said, we don't agree on everything. And we shouldn't expect to. A certain amount of tension between your views and ours can be creative, so long as it doesn't turn into a constant barrage of negativity from one side or the other.

Do you want a better-funded, better-led, better rewarded education service in this country? A service that's open equally to everyone who can benefit from it? Well so does the Government. But it's important to bear in mind that not everyone does.

For example, you'll have seen last week's comments by an academic who basically thinks that young people from well-off families are cleverer than those from working class backgrounds, and that this is why more of them get into the most selective universities.

Now Sally's challenged these views publicly and so have I. Views like these, I believe, amount to reactionary prejudice. The facts just don't bear out what he's said. For example, we know that many young people from poorer backgrounds gain the qualifications to go to university, but that they are still less likely to do so than young people from better off families. So it is vital that we continue to prepare and support students to aspire to higher education. This is why we have extended funding for the Aimhigher programme with the specific remit of raising aspirations, and why we have introduced the Aimhigher Associates scheme to support pupils through the university application process.

Nevertheless, I'm actually glad that that academic said what he said. Because it's a salutary reminder to us all that it's still possible for ostensibly rational people to believe such drivel. And to try to convince others to think likewise. It's what many of our national newspapers have been doing for years.

So let's be clear, in the real world that your members and millions of learners inhabit, what the realistic alternative to this Government's policies is.

As I've implied, everyone needs critical friends and parties that have been in power for eleven years need them more than most. And I do realise that a number of the policies that we have announced in the year since DIUS was created have not been welcomed by the UCU.

So I want to talk to you now about three of the propositions on which what we're trying to do is founded. I think they're all pretty uncontroversial. Some of you may still disagree with the way we're going about it, but I hope there is at least common ground between us on what it is we ought to be striving to achieve.

My first proposition is that education and training are one of the most powerful levers at our disposal to bring about profound and lasting social change. That, surely, is unarguable. Historically, education's been something that's separated the haves from the have-nots. Our commitment, mine and this Government's, is to place higher-level education and skills within the grasp of everyone capable of acquiring them.

But we're not going to achieve that just by letting further and higher education carry on in the way they always have. That just doesn't recognise the reality of people's lives - those of the 20 million working-age adults who don't have degrees, or the 6 million of them who have got to A level or the equivalent and just stopped.

These are people with commitments - jobs to hold down, mortgages to pay, children to bring up.

Do we not owe it to the third of our population we're not currently reaching to try harder to find ways of bringing learning to them?

Do we not owe it to them to find new ways to give them the education they will gain from both personally and professionally when, where and how they need it?

And do we not also owe it to them to give them not what we think they're entitled to, but what they think they need?

Of course we do.

That's the thinking behind our ELQ policy, which will give 20,000 people a year the chance of a higher education that would otherwise have been withheld from them.

My second proposition is that, if we're to achieve all this, we need the ultimate users of education on the inside helping us to create change for the better rather than on the outside idly looking on.

To my mind, the notion that further and higher education have not always been seen to a large extent as vocational from the learner perspective is just plain wrong.

I strongly doubt that there are many young people who start a degree course - it doesn't matter in what subject - without at least one eye on what they're going to do after they leave university. But equally, I'd be very disappointed if I thought there was a student on even the most hard-nosed, commerce-oriented business studies course who didn't get far more out of their higher education than what they'll make use of during working hours.

Despite the concerns that some have aired, involving employers more closely in higher education isn't going to change that. When, for example, have degrees in medicine or law not had an employment-related dimension? When have the medical and legal professions not been closely involved in designing and providing them?

The high-level skills strategy that I published a few weeks back aims both to help providers to take education out of the classroom and into the workplace in order to reach more learners. It will also help give employers and learners alike an incentive to take advantage of the provision that's on offer.

There's nothing reactionary about asking employers to carry part of the cost of courses and services from which their businesses will benefit.

That's the philosophy that underpins unionlearn and every other union-led education initiative of the last century and a half.

It's also the context for the 10-15 year challenges for universities that John Denham spoke about at the Wellcome trust in February. We are trying to start a debate about what sort of higher education system we will need by then, and what we need to do to start moving towards it

I don't think you'll find the Government's preconceptions of what sort of system we should be aiming for particularly surprising or controversial. We want to maintain and improve the quality and international standing of research. We want to bring a good standard of higher education to all those who can benefit from it. We want to maximise the contribution that higher education is already making to a healthy economy and excellent public services. We want universities with strong international links. And we want a higher education system that contributes fully to local and regional development, and to the cultural life of the country.

We also want to explore these aspirations and how to turn them into reality in detail with the sector. That's why we've commissioned reviews of intellectual property, high-level skills, university-school links and the international dimension of higher education. I hope that the UCU and its members will make their voices heard and contribute to our work in all these areas.

What we're working towards is not the privatisation of further and higher education, but its democratisation. The decades-old struggle to open educational opportunity to all who can benefit from it continues today.

That's a struggle in which, unless I'm totally mistaken, the UCU and the Government are on the same side.

Before I close I want to stress a third and final proposition. That none of what I've said today runs contrary to the freedoms that teachers in further and higher education have long enjoyed. I've spoken out publicly many times in defence of free thought and free inquiry. I wouldn't tolerate either being threatened because both are essential to a healthy society which allows and indeed encourages anyone to challenge received wisdom.

That was one of the key messages of the revised guidance on violent extremism that we published in January. This sought to take account of the views that the UCU and others expressed about the previous version of the guidance. So I'm very pleased that Sally felt able to welcome on your behalf its emphasis on the need to encourage academic freedom, shared values and community cohesion as a means of preventing violent extremism.

And in that context I find it implausible not saying something about your policy towards engagement with Israeli academics.

Let me be clear - you are entitled to decide your policy. But I have to tell you I profoundly disagree with cutting links with Israeli academics. That doesn't mean people can't, or shouldn't criticise Israeli government decisions and policies.

But academic boycotts are the complete antithesis of academic freedom. Boycotting academics because of their nationality I find deeply disturbing. And there is no evidence that such a strategy would further the cause of peace in the Middle East.

When I visited Israel and the Palestine occupied territories last year I met Palestinians like the Vice Chancellor of Al-Quds University who were totally apposed to a boycott.

I met Israeli academics engaged in welfare projects for Palestinians in the occupied territories. Would we want to cut ourselves of initiatives like that? In my experience there are in Israel and the occupied territories both progressive and reactionaries. And the problem with boycotts is that they make the job of the progressives more difficult, and they reinforce of the position of reactionaries.

It's your decision but I would urge you to think again.

So there are things we disagree on but there's much more that unites us.

We need to find common cause to build on the achievements of the last 11 years.

In closing, I would like you to reflect on the fact that the most important privilege - I chose the word carefully - that your members have is being able to change people's lives for the better. In doing so they are changing this country for the better.

My challenge to you is to work with us in helping them to do that, to build in the coming years on what we have started to achieve through dialogue of the sort that the post 16 forum represents.