By Ana Yousaf

I attended the Higher Education Service Group Conference as a first time delegate  on Thursday 16th January 2020. This is when all University UNISON branches get together and discuss/agree any motions put forward by either our Service Group Executive Committee or branches such as ours around the UK. This will often decide the campaigns we want the union as a whole in Higher Education to pick up and a strategy around our pay claim within Higher Education, which we can take forward for 2020/21.

I travelled down to Milton Keynes (where the conference was held) with my colleague Lucinda Wakefield on the afternoon before. Having someone to travel down with was really appreciated as we had to catch another train from Birmingham New street to Milton Keynes which was a bit chaotic.  It was good to get down there on time too, as it meant I could ensure I was prepared and had my delegate registration and conference pack.  I also had put a photo onto my credential badge ready to wear at all times in the conference hall.

My experience of the conference was enjoyable and satisfying, especially being with another delegate from the branch who had attended before, so knew what to do and expect.  They were able to show me the ropes and I had company.  On the first evening we met several  delegates from different branches within Higher Education, some of whom were part of the Higher Education Service Group Committee.

We got to the conference hall early to ensure that we had seats in the right area assigned by our region (South Yorkshire).

From the day, one motion fell (this means it was not heard at conference) due to the branch who were due to speak on it not being in attendance. Otherwise all the motions put forward were passed and as a first time delegate I did speak on two of the motions. These were:

  • Motion 5 – ‘Positively Promoting Mental Wellbeing in the Workplace’
  • Motion 11 – ‘ Raising the profile of Black activists in Higher Education’

Speaking at the conference for the first time was quite  daunting as my heart was beating rapidly when I made the move to walk up to the rostrum to speak. However, I did it and on the flipside, it was a satisfying experience for me and made me feel part of the debate – I was proud to represent the branch in this way. I have been enthused  to do more within our branch here at Sheffield Hallam University – especially as I was passionate about the motions I had spoken to and supported.

The morning of the conference was quite slow with very few (if any speakers) from the floor and several motions being passed without debate. I was very proud that as delegates from the branch myself and Lucinda did speak on several of the motions throughout the day and gave our branches perspective throughout.

However, the afternoon came alive when we got to motion 9. – ‘Industrial action ballot tactics for 2020-21 pay campaign and beyond’. There were hardly any seats left on either the ‘for or ‘against’ seated areas as delegates queued up to be part of this lively debate.  The discussion was around if and what we can achieve from going for a disaggregate ballot this year without losing our collective bargaining (a tactic that UCU lecturers union seem to be taking).  When it came to the vote and the show of hands it was too tight to call so the bell was rung for a paper vote. This is when all doors are closed in the hall and each branch has to write their decision (for or against) using the number of members they have in their branch. This is then posted  into a ballot box to be counted whilst the conference then resumes its duties.  The result came back later in the afternoon passing the motion, with 8303 for and just over  6000 against.

We both did also manage to take the opportunity in the breaks and at lunch to do some networking, making new contacts nationwide.  I had lunch with a first time delegate and explained to them how they could speak – which they did in the afternoon session.

I would recommend anyone who attends a UNISON conference for the first time to watch the ‘UNISON new delegates film’ at the link here.

Once the motions and amendments have been finalised we will make them available for members.