As Professor Steve Bradley is hoist by his own petard, Spineless took the opportunity to sit down with Lancaster UCU vice-president and pensions officer Sunil Banga in a wide-ranging conversation that covered his candidature for UCU NEC, the upcoming 14-day strike action, his background as a students' union vice-president, and his role in the LU Race Equality Network.
Sunil Banga is a Teaching Fellow in the Management School and is also completing a PhD in Educational Research. He was previously head of the International Study Centre and joined UCU, originally as academic-related professional services staff, in 2013 after they helped with a workplace problem.
Hello, Sunil. As part of our coverage of the strikes, we have decided to speak to the Lancaster candidates standing for UCU NEC. You are one of the three, alongside Julie Hearn and Chloé Vitry. What do you make of the election this year?
That's right, I'm standing for the NEC as a candidate on the UCU Left slate. I've been a member since 2013 and I've been part of various committees across UCU. I've been part of the Academic Related Professional Services (ARPS) Committee and a regular delegate to the North West Regional Committee. I have also been a candidate for the Black Members' Standing Committee. I stood for the NEC in 2018 but I was not successful. This year, the competition is even tougher. I've never seen this number of candidates, and this does indicate that the union is vibrant and that members are taking the democratic processes seriously. But looking at how some people are campaigning this time could introduce more division in the union, which is something we should try to avoid.
I understand you helped draft the motion for the HEC to combine the USS dispute with the 'Four Fights'. What was the context of that?
I did that as a delegate to UCU Congress, which is the supreme policy-making body where delegates from all universities gather. Nils Markusson (Lancaster UCU treasurer), Julie Hearn, and I were sat outside the hotel having a cup of tea. We were discussing all of the issues over USS, pay, casualisation, and the pay gaps. In the HE sector, there is a distinction between universities which are research-intensive, and universities which are teaching-led. So, pre-'92 and post-'92 institutions. The most egregious effects of marketisation, like casualisation and workloads, are felt by everyone, it's not just reserved to older universities, whereas USS is.
So we thought, "how do we get all these colleagues and comrades together? How do we all stand together in solidarity?" We can break down the issues and fight against them on an individual basis, but my idea was to bring everything together. Everything was happening because of the Conservative government policy of creating artificial competition in universities. It can't be just a USS dispute with pre-'92 institutions and a pay dispute with post-'92 institutions, if we stand together, we win. If we don't, then we are all fighting our individual battles. And that's worked very well, I'm very pleased with that. We've got 74 universities going on strike, which will send a strong signal.
Isn't it the biggest higher education strike, in terms of numbers?
That's right, we're expecting around 60,000 staff to go on strike.
You are also standing as a UCU Left candidate. There's a division, it seems, in UCU, over the next set of strike action. There's an argument that it's too long, or it's strategically at the wrong time. That could result in a vote against you in the election.
I'm very much aware of that. But it's the principle again, here. We struck for 8 days, and I don't think we made the progress that we wanted to make, which other groups in UCU agree with. It's almost counter-intuitive to suggest, as part of the labour movement, that we haven't made progress so we should just de-escalate. If we had made progress, would we be escalating like this? Of course not. It's exactly because we're not making progress with employers that we need to step up the action. We need to go out for 14 days.
There are gaps within that period where the employers have a chance to come back and give us an offer or negotiate with us. And it also gives people a bit of a breather. But at the end of the day, it says to the employer that we want to see progress or we will keep fighting. That's why I'm standing on the UCU Left slate.
As I understand it, you are a candidate both for a set of normal vacancies and casual vacancies on the NEC, but you are top of UCU Left's list for the casual vacancy.
Yeah, it's like a by-election for Jo Grady's old seat on the NEC that was vacated after she became General Secretary. So if I was elected to the casual vacancy, it would be for just one year. One thing is that I'm not on social media, so that might be a bit of a handicap. It's a question of how you communicate with members when you're not on social media, so that's something I'm considering joining. But I hope members who are involved in UCU right now have seen my contribution, in terms of the Four Fights and USS dispute.
I read an article you wrote where you outlined your views on privatisation and outsourcing in higher education. What impact do you think outsourcing and privatisation have at Lancaster?
Outsourcing and privatisation are a sign of marketisation of the HE sector, we see that at Lancaster especially with UPP. Senior management either outsource services or they take it out on the staff. I'm not sure if you know about the vacancy controls that are used at Lancaster, but we estimate that there has been a substantial decrease in staff numbers as a result. We also estimate that around 60% of staff at Lancaster are casualised. We recently reached an agreement with the University over moving to indefinite/permanent contracts, but we've yet to see the impact of that.
Was that the agreement reached in November?
Yes, not that long ago.
I understand you sit on two University committees, the JNCC as well as the CCM.
That's right. Several committees that have been put in place between the University and trade unions to carry out the partnership agreement. There's the Communication and Consultation Meeting (CCM) - I've been on the CCM for about three years now - and there's the Joint Negotiating and Consultation Committee (JNCC) that I've been on for about a year and a half, which is where everything gets signed off. Then you've got the Health and Safety Committee and there are a couple of other committees that UNISON and Unite lead on. These are the main structures through which we try to engage with the University, but they are built on a foundation of trust. Sometimes that can be stretched to its limits, as is the case with Julie Hearn. The trust is at breaking point, but there's still hope for reconciliation. And with the help of external pressure and the student-organised open letter, hopefully, it won't come to the tribunal.
UNISON and Unite have both withdrawn from the committees, haven't they?
Yes, they withdrew in support of us.
Something very interesting in your candidate statement to the NEC was that you said you were vice-president of your students' union at Delhi University. I suppose it was a little different to the one at Lancaster now?
I was vice-president for four years. Those were different days, you're talking about 1987 to 1990. Students' unions were very radical, we were activists. Students weren't afraid to take charge of things, because in those days students thought the university was students: "It's our university, it's the students who make up the university, not the managers who run it." The original concept of universities, and the 1000-year-old Bologna University is an example, was that they were to be run by students.
There were two key issues when I was in the students' union. One was very similar to what we are facing now in the UK, which was marketisation and commercialisation. The government was liberalising, opening up the sector, and lots of private companies were setting up shop in India, as well as lots of foreign universities. I remember Oxford Brookes was one of them. There was another struggle going on at the time in which I was quite actively involved, it was the Mandal Commission. It was a huge class war going on in India, and to appease certain minority groups, there was to be some positive discrimination in that a percentage of government jobs were to be reserved. I don't think we were opposed to it in principle, but the way it was being managed was very difficult, and it led to huge protests all over India. I was part of these protests, leading them for Delhi University.
And you are currently doing a PhD in Educational Research, so you're a student again.
That's right. You might have also noticed that it's not just Educational Research, but my area of study is social justice, so that's what I feel strongly about. Although I teach in the Management School, that's where my passion is.
I wanted to ask you about some of your work to help BAME staff. You have co-convened the Race Equality Network at Lancaster. What's the main thrust of the Network?
Julie and I have convened the Race Equality Network, and now Miranda, who is our Equalities Officer, is leading it. It came out of two things: one, I'm a BAME person myself, and I know what white privilege looks like and that sometimes people just want a space or a support group where they can go to talk about things and feel comfortable to discuss their issues. The other reason which almost compelled us to start this was the University's complete apathy towards race equality. We have been pushing this for two years now with Sharon Huttly, who is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education and EDI, and every time we hit a brick wall. Either there are no resources for this, or we've got to focus on Athena SWAN.
The University didn't get Athena SWAN last time, so they have re-submitted the application. What we've been saying to the University is that it doesn't have to be either/or. It seems they are just treating Athena SWAN as a tick-box bureaucratic exercise, that they just want the logo. They have hired a part-time Dean for EDI, but I had a meeting with management where I challenged this and asked, "Why are you hiring a Dean for EDI that is only part-time, and only for two years? Is everything going to be okay after two years? Are all equality matters going to disappear?" And they said that they had to focus on Athena SWAN and didn't have the resources for race equality issues at the moment. I hope they see this staff-run network and start working towards the Race Equality Charter. We've always said that we will be very happy to offer our expertise, but they've always said no.
The University has a legal requirement to publish the Gender Pay Gap, but it has no such requirement to publish the Racial Pay Gap. Do you know what it is?
UCU has estimated that it is about 14% nationally. One of the things we have been saying is that they should at least start collecting the data to find out what's going on. But we don't know what the reality is at Lancaster.
Thank you for your time.