Profile: Jo Grady, UCU general secretary

The 35-year-old union leader discusses strikes, sexual misconduct and ‘white supremacy’ in the higher education sector

Based in an office tucked off a Camden alleyway, the headquarters of the University and College Union (UCU) look unassuming. Inside, the union (which is just 13 years old) is planning ambitious walkouts over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), staff pay, inequalities and working conditions.   

Dr Jo Grady, the 35-year-old Yorkshire-born UCU general secretary, has not been in her job long but is already leading a high-stakes campaign on many fronts. The former lecturer in industrial relations may have, in her own words, “drifted into academia”, but her career in the union seems anything but random.

Read more: December strikes: crisis talks stall with days to go

‘Accidental academic’

A self-described “clever clogs” at school, Jo says she “was quite a show-off and was always the star in school plays”. Through an embarrassed laugh, Jo admits: “I was probably a really awful child actually.” The first in her family to go to university, Jo says she was “an accidental academic” and “didn’t even know postgraduate studies existed”.

“I was encouraged by my lecturers when I was a third year to apply for postgraduate funding, and then my supervisor suggested to me that I might apply for a job. I just drifted into academia, which I think is probably quite unusual, particularly for someone from a working-class background.”

“The thing that really appealed to me about becoming an academic was – much like I was the first person from my family to go to university and a lecturer had inspired me to stay – I thought, if I can change another kid’s life from a working-class home, it will be worth it.”

This is a really cynical lesson, but never underestimate the extent of institutional cruelty

Jo hails from a “a really political household”, which was coloured by the legacy of the miners’ strike.

Although too young to remember the conflict, Jo says, “Unions and progressive politics were always discussed in my house. When I became a member of staff at university, the idea that I wouldn’t join the union was just weird. I’m a very active person and I was always involved in my department and in my branch.”

In 2009, she started working at the University of Leicester before becoming senior lecturer in employment relations at Sheffield University Management School.

“I think it’s fair to say that in the last seven to eight years, as universities have become more aggressively marketised and the working conditions of staff have become under threat from intensification and redundancies, I stepped up and was part of the fight back,” she explains.

Those early years of union involvement left a lasting mark on the general secretary.

“One of the things I’ll always regret, and it’s one of the things that will keep me in line in this job, is one of the first big campaigns I was responsible for at the University of Leicester was to save people at the Vaughan College of Lifelong Learning from redundancy. As a branch, we saved pretty much everybody who was under threat of redundancy at the university, but we couldn’t save those people’s jobs. I look back and think – ‘Could we have done this differently; could we have done that differently?’”

Asked if that experience might impact her strategy in the ongoing dispute, Jo replies: “This is a really cynical lesson, but never underestimate the extent of institutional cruelty. Sometimes the decisions managers make don’t stand up to scrutiny and aren’t rational. The first time you learn that, it’s really hard because you assume ‘they couldn’t just be seeking to close this; there must be a reason’, and sometimes there isn’t.”

Universities know that there are only 25 black female professors in the UK. That statistic is so shocking.

Read more: Strikes: eight-day action warned over pensions and pay

The first Joint Expert Panel (JEP)

The USS’s annual report has seen the share of members reporting a positive relationship with the scheme fall from 53% in 2016/17 to 31% in 2018/19. USS aimed to achieve a 50% ‘positive relationship’ score this year.

Jo says the union chose to ballot members over the pension scheme because members face contribution increases and “a recent survey by USS suggests members are on the brink of leaving – and will leave – the scheme because of the contribution increases”.

“You don’t have to be pensions experts to know that when younger members leave a scheme, it can really destabilise things. If we were to wait two years, people could have left the scheme and we could have a real problem by that point. If we want to influence the 2020 evaluation, which we do, because of the problems we’ve had with evaluation in previous years, now is the time to do it,” she adds.

These ballot results send a crystal-clear message to university employers that staff won’t simply sit back

According to the latest USS members’ report, 15% of eligible members have declined to join and rates are slightly higher for employees aged under 35 and over 61; this figure has, a spokesperson for USS confirmed, remained stable for the last decade. The survey Jo mentions is not publicly available, and USS maintains the sample size of the survey, which represents just 1% of members, is not indicative of a wider trend and does not influence how the scheme calculates contributions.

Jo says speculation of increased contributions and suggestions the defined-benefit scheme might be changed to a collective defined pension (CDC) scheme are “further reasons to ballot now”.

“These ballot results send a crystal-clear message to university employers that staff won’t simply sit back and accept attacks on their pensions, pay and working conditions. The first wave of strikes will hit universities later this month, with eight days of action from 25 November, unless the employers start talking to us seriously about how they are going to deal with these issues.

“In the past, with us, they’ve influenced the pension scheme, and they’ve chosen to support joint findings. And this time they really sat back. So, this ballot now is about saying the second JEP is going to be reported soon, we want to see employers honouring the first report with us.”

Strike action is due to start from the end of November for eight days. (credit: Flickr, dun.can)

‘Do away with entry requirements’

I think if you want a truly progressive education system, I would do away with entry requirements.

With the benefit of her own experiences to draw on, Jo has ambitious suggestions for social mobility at universities. The union she heads represents employees in further education and higher education, and, as Jo explains, solutions are needed pre- and post-18 to encourage and retain students from low participation backgrounds.

“I think if you can’t afford to stay on at sixth form college, you’re not going to get to university. When I was 18, where I lived there was a trial period of educational maintenance allowance (EMA), which now no longer exists. Most of my friends were only able to go to college because they got the EMA.”

Besides EMA, Jo advocates eradicating university tuition fees, and fears a “curtailment of ambition” is putting kids from working-class backgrounds off HE.

“I think if you want a truly progressive education system, I would do away with entry requirements.

If you’ve been through quite a bruising school experience, university is that space to gain your confidence back. People who teach at universities are incredibly skilled.

If you have the skill and the desire to study, then we should be able to teach you. I think for subjects like medicine, if you can’t pass the conditions, then that’s a different matter, but I don’t see why we need entry requirements.”

‘Misuse of the metrics of marketisation’

Sometimes the decisions managers make don’t stand up to scrutiny and aren’t rational

In Jo’s opinion, working conditions have not stagnated – standards are sliding away. “If you’re being asked to do more work for less money, I would say that’s a worsening. If your workload is increased so much that you simply cannot get your work done in five days, that’s worsening. It’s not that things are stagnating; I think the people on the ground, teaching day-to-day, working in libraries, working in IT, their lives have gotten worse at work,” she says, adding “we’re looking at a gender pay gap of 15.8%. Pay has fallen by about 20% in real terms since the financial crisis.”

Staff on insecure contracts face day-to-day problems “such as not having access to basic facilities, not being included in curriculum design and review, and not being paid for preparation and assessment”, Jo says, and face “long-term stresses of financial hardship and lack of job security”. She says university chiefs need to “stop making excuses and engage seriously with us on this issue”.

Marketisation, Jo says, has set the scene for a system on the brink. If this is the symptom, can UCU offer a remedy? “I don’t think it’s irreversible,” Jo replies. “Some of the worst aspects of life in universities are a consequence of the misuse of the metrics of marketisation. The ways institutions are measured on the basis of value for money, such as the REF, TEF, and the National Student Survey, don’t necessarily measure value or quality. The TEF often tells you how close the university is to London more than anything else because it looks at employability. There’s a need to measure it because we’re charging people for this.”

This culture of metrics has led to “a toxic form of management culture” and “a drive to do more with less”, the general secretary says matter-of-factly. “All these things can be overturned. I don’t think these metrics provide much value for anybody; I think the tanker can be turned around.”

White supremacy and the academy

It’s really embarrassing, it’s shameful, and they’re not doing anything about it

If Jo has a blunt response to most issues in the sector, it is on the experiences of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) academics and staff that the general secretary is particularly forthright.

“Shifting the dial is going to take a long time because it’s really about systemic change, and that’s why employers have been slow to respond. Universities know that there are only 25 black female professors in the UK. That statistic is so shocking. Universities don’t publish data on race pay gaps, and they refuse to do so when we ask them to.

“One of the things included in the second ballot is we want universities to sign up to raise the quality measures. We want a national framework for reducing the 9% pay gaps for BAME staff and we want employers to sign up to measures to create promotion opportunities for BAME staff.”

Jo mentions that, earlier this year, a report from Leading Routes revealed that 1.2% of nearly 20,000 studentships awarded by all the UKRI research councils went to black or black mixed students.

“I stumbled into academia because I got funding,” she exclaims. “Ninety per cent of black staff members report facing barriers to promotion in colleges and universities. One of the reasons we’re balloting members is to say to universities, you need to negotiate with us on these things. It’s really embarrassing, it’s shameful, and they’re not doing anything about it.”

We want a national framework for reducing the 9% pay gaps for BME staff

The challenge, Jo reflects, is not just with institutions but “the metrics [which] embed discrimination into what we judge and value”. She adds: “If you want systemic change, it has to come from the bottom up. But systemic change doesn’t happen without big structural change. The big issues of how we value research are set by things like REF, panels and promotion boards. Change has to be cultural and it has to be willing to acknowledge that the academy as it currently functions is essentially white supremacist.”

Tackling sexual harassment

When Jo announced her campaign for general secretary, she described herself as a “wildcard” candidate for the post. Still a relatively fresh face to the members, Jo says she is keen to establish task groups to help the union have a better handle on issues that affect the sector.

“The first two will focus on sexual misconduct and the hostile environment and migrant justice. These are issues that affect our members all the time, but as a union campaigning on fees, funding and the day-to-day issues, sometimes those other issues just don’t get the attention they deserve.”

Members will be encouraged to nominate themselves and the union will pick people to form a time-limited group to address particular topics and outputs. Tackling sexual harassment is an issue the sector is grappling with and the complexity of the issue is another reason why Jo says a task group can help the union generate demands.

“We know sexual harassment and misconduct is a problem in universities. We need to formulate ways in which we can protect survivors without re-traumatising them and we need to develop good reporting mechanisms that are anonymous because, at the minute, institutions do not do this well. Trade unions don’t either and I think any union expecting an employer to follow a blueprint had better get its own house in order.”

The future

After announcing the results of its two ballots, UCU estimated that strikes – if they were to go ahead – could affect more than one million students at universities across the UK. With the swirling issue of pensions (in general) looking likely to persist, could a collective solution for USS point towards a consensus for other schemes?

What is clear from UCU’s new general secretary’s approach is that, while pensions and pay might repeatedly hit the headlines, Jo is committed to dragging the spotlight back to other issues within HE.


Jo Grady discusses industrial action with The Education Station, a podcast from EdQuarter, publisher of University Business, Education Technology and Independent Education Today.

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