As huge industrial action by UCU members takes place across the country, UCU members will also be looking inwards during the National Executive Committee (NEC) elections, which are ongoing. UCU members have until 28th February to post their ballots for them to be counted.
Three candidates are standing from Lancaster. Sunil Banga, who we spoke to previously, and Dr Julie Hearn are standing as part of the UCU Left slate. Dr Chloé Vitry is standing as an unaffiliated candidate but has been endorsed by popular UCU blog USS Briefs. Last week, before the strike action began, Spineless sat down with Dr Vitry to discuss her stance on trans rights in the union, anti-racism, strike tactics, and her experiences as a student in France.
I read your NEC candidate statement, and there were three main thrusts to it. The first one I'd like to talk about it an area which I understand you specialise in as academic, which is trans issues and queer issues, and trying to draw the line between academic freedom and plain transphobia.
Yeah, it's an issue in academia and it's an issue in the union, still. I've talked about it on Twitter and it was the primary reason I'm running for the NEC. There was a desire to have as many as supportive candidates as possible on the ballot. We knew that there would be conversations around trans issues in the election, and I wanted the majority of voices that speak on these issues to be in support of trans rights. I do want people to vote for me, I'd be really interested in having a seat on the NEC, but even if I don't win, I'm quite pleased there are a majority of candidates who are vocally in support of trans rights and have a very strong position on the 'so-called' debate on academic freedom. We have to be careful about how that's weaponised as a way to marginalise a certain amount of people.
So, it is an academic interest, but it's also a personal interest. I'm queer and I've got a lot of trans friends and colleagues. I'm in these conversations all the time, my mind is sharpened critically to spot the language that is thinly-masked. When you read, for example, the motion at UCU Congress last year about academic freedom and sex and gender, the language of it sounds reasonable. Of course, I support academic freedom, but the critical logic behind the language of the motion is: "We want people to be able to say any kind of offensive stuff about trans people." It was very cleverly criticised by a number of members, who explained UCU already has a motion supporting academic freedom in general, and a motion supporting trans rights, and what was being proposed was incompatible and really dangerous.
Several members drafted a letter which I signed, and quite a lot of other people signed as well, to explain that when we say we are against the motion, we're not saying we're against academic freedom, we're saying we're the weaponisation of academic freedom. As a French person, I have a bit of a different perspective, as freedom of speech means something a bit different. For example, it's illegal in France to publicly deny the Holocaust. Similar to the UK, slurs fall under hate speech. This shows the legal limits of free speech because some things aren't okay to say as they actually harm people. That's where we fall with academic freedom as well. As an academic, you should be able to hold opinions and not worry about your employment status, but that doesn't automatically give you a right to a platform where you can marginalise your colleagues and students.
One of the other key points in your NEC statement was that the union could do more for anti-racism.
So, there are two things. First, as a white academic and union member, we're not doing enough to support people of colour. So far, we've left it up to people of colour, in academic circles and in the union, to do the work that needs to do be done, which is unacceptable. I've heard people of colour say that they've left the union because they felt excluded. Which is completely fair, to me. The union needs to earn trust back by acting and changing things. In any institution, discrimination is grounded in the institution. Organisations reflect certain kinds of hegemonic dominance, whether they're patriarchal, or racist, or transphobic. We can't just assume that we're not discriminating because it's not very obvious. We need to recognise, among ourselves, that we can never do enough and we need to be aware of these issues.
I'm a migrant myself, but a white European migrant. I've always been surrounded by migrant issues - my mum was a very strong activist in a migrant support campaign. But the discourse has shifted a bit around Brexit, and a lot of European migrants feel excluded, unwelcomed, and unsettled. They do not know what their future is going to be like, but I thought, "welcome to what every other migrant is experiencing and has always experienced." They have to pay extortionate fees for visas that universities won't pay, they are made to feel like a second-class worker. For me, going to the UCU Migrant Conference is about going as someone who has a certain amount of privilege, not really feeling threatened by Brexit because France is quite a comfortable country. It's about using my voice to discuss cases where members and others are threatened by this. And, obviously, Prevent is disgusting and it shouldn't be our jobs - or anyone's job, really.
Your third manifesto point was to do with transparency, and you have pledged to make your voting decisions public. Of course, if elected, you'd be on both the NEC and the HEC.
That's right, and HEC has all the Higher Education members of the NEC.
It's the HEC that took the decisions on strike action at universities.
Yes, because ultimately the ballot is for higher education rather than any of the other groups UCU represents.
One of the issues in the NEC election is criticism of the decision over the upcoming set of strike action. There's a question over whether it is too long, or strategically in the wrong place. What do you think?
I think part of it is that when people voted for strike action, they voted for a six-month mandate. They also think industrial action is reduced to striking because action short of a strike (ASOS) is so tough for us to implement as our job descriptions are so blurry. There's a feeling when we go back to work after a strike ends, the industrial action is suspended, but it's ongoing for six months. I don't see going back on strike as a new wave of industrial action, I see it as the continuity. People also need to understand that it's a national strike and these dates have been decided at a national level, so terms have different start and end dates. A problem with re-balloting is that it's very hard to get people to strike - part of the issue is that's a material ballot, and people just sit on their ballots at home. It takes a tremendous amount of work to run a get out the vote campaign every time.
One thing I've read that I agree with is that, sadly, I'm not sure how much we can win. Part of that is down to the model we're stuck in, this neoliberal university model. I think it's quite absurd we have to collectively negotiate with a collective of universities who are also competing against one another. In terms of industrial economics, it's a very, very weird situation of coopetition, effectively. But if we don't try to win as much as possible, we either leave academia and find another job or just accept defeat and accept the working conditions are going to get worse, teaching conditions are going to get worse, pensions are going to be weaker and pay is going to be lower. I do, of course, hope we win, but there's also a question about priorities and what we want to prioritise in the negotiations.
Something that we haven't discussed much and I would love to see is a cap on the high salaries of the VC and senior management. I think it's quite obscene that some VCs are making £250,000 a year when so many of us are paid so little. I think that would go a long way in getting trust back from university staff.
When you were at university in France, were you particularly involved in student politics?
I was involved quite a lot in my last year of high school in protests because we couldn't strike as students. Our teachers were striking and our classes were cancelled, so we were free to leave campus. We used to have the 1st May protests that were huge in France, quite an important tradition that has been threatened a lot by police violence in the last few years. I have a belief that participating in these protests developed a sort of critical thought and political awareness, even before I went to university.
I actually started university in '05, and Chirac's government was trying to pass a new type of contract for young workers that was very neoliberal and very dangerous - the First Employment Contract. It very frightening for people in universities who were expecting their first contract very soon, but it was also very worrying for people who were entering employment at 17 and 18. At the time, there was youth unemployment of about 25%. Students decided to strike in a May '68 revival - they blocked learning, cancelled exams. I was in medical school for a year and remember being very shocked that no one was concerned. Older medical students came and said that it didn't affect us, we shouldn't worry about it, and also it will disrupt your studies. The success rate of the first-year medical exam in France is like 30%, so 70% of students end up going into different degree subjects. I was really shocked at that level of individualism in university students.
You're standing as an unaffiliated candidate, but you are also endorsing a number of other candidates. What's the story behind that?
A lot of people think we are creating this new faction, but we really aren't. I was contacted by members who had run the Jo Grady 4 GS campaign who asked me if I wanted to stand for NEC as a new member who is quite vocal. Some of these people participate in USS Briefs, too. Mostly these are people who are quite active online, making efforts to explain UCU to everybody who just joined in 2018. I think it would be quite good for the union to have a balance of people who have been getting into things for a while and new members, sometimes just to question why things are done the way they are. It's a matter of organisational health, to get a variety of voices like that.
The people I have endorsed are people I know are quite close in terms of political beliefs and regarding trans rights, particularly. I think it's a really important issue in the union, as, at the end of the day, academics are legitimising transphobic discourses in the UK. The union has a huge role to play in this, I think. It has to be secured within the NEC, and Congress, too.
Thank you for your time.