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UCU general secretary candidates clash over membership numbers

Image: Simarchy [CC BY-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Hopefuls set out their stalls in national hustings event

Two candidates to become the next general secretary of the University and College Union have clashed over the number of members the union has.

In a national hustings event on 2 February, leadership hopeful Ewan ​​McGaughey said UCU membership was down by 6,000 since 2019, claiming that numbers were going “down and down and down”. He said that the total was 129,000 that year and 126,000 the next year, followed by further drops.

​​McGaughey alleged that “opportunities had been squandered” to grow the union, and said incumbent general secretary Jo Grady’s outspoken Twitter posts had been a distraction from union objectives. 

He said the UCU needed to be “coherent in the way that we project our public image…so that people want to join our union instead of leaving”.

Grady, who has been in post since 2019, hit back, saying that McGaughey’s figures were “deeply misleading” and that there were more than 101,800 fee-paying members in 2023, up from fewer than 101,000 in 2019. 

A union spokesperson told Research Professional News that the discrepancy was because McGaughey included non-fee-paying members in his figures.

Need for change

Grady told the event that she had “lived and breathed this job for five years”, conceding that “there are things that have gone well; there are things that could have gone much better”.

“UCU does need to change,” she said. “We’ve got a lot to celebrate from the last four years, but also have a lot that we need to fight for. We do need to move away from meetings being toxic, from online abuse…but I know that we can deliver change.”

A third candidate, Vicky Blake, called for “substantial change, beginning at the top” of the union. She alleged a “toxic and divisive culture” in the UCU, adding that she was “ready to work with members” to address it.

“We need a new approach to leadership to organise, democratise and unite as a serious and confident union,” Blake said. “Divisive in-fighting really doesn’t have to define our union.”

The fourth candidate, Sarah Weiner, said it was important to “have as many open, democratic spaces [as possible] where our members can disagree and argue”.

“We have not won enough on pay, workload, casualisation and other issues,” she added. “The union doesn’t change simply because you change the general secretary. The strength lies in the activity of its ordinary members, but the last five years have shown that who leads does matter. When we stand together, we can change the world.”