Britain’s biggest university union is set to confront its position on transgender rights, as its members remain locked in disputes over pay and pensions.
Critics of a motion calling on the Colleges and Universities Union (UCU) to take a stand against ‘gender-critical’ feminists – those who believe it is not possible for people to change their biological sex – said it was divisive and distracted the union from its core work of protecting workers’ rights.
But supporters said academics should do more to create a fully inclusive and safe culture for people of all genders and accused their opponents of starting a “culture war”.
If passed at the UCU convention in June, the motion would mandate the union ‘to oppose ‘gender critics’ and transphobes ‘to promote gender ideology’ and try to undermine rights trans and non-binary people”.
Holly Smith, who is nearing the end of her two-year term on the UCU’s national executive committee, said it could expose the union to legal action from those who felt discriminated against, referring to the case of Maya Forstater, who won a high court ruling in June 2021 that gender beliefs must be protected after her contract at the Center for Global Development, a think tank, was not renewed.
“It’s unclear what opposing feminists who take a materialist approach would look like in practice, but it certainly raises the possibility that UCU is advocating for us to be subjected to unlawful discrimination,” said Smith, senior lecturer in higher education at University College London. .
Although the motion has yet to pass, a spokesperson for the union said the UCU is a “proud and unequivocal supporter of the rights of trans and non-binary people” and “unreservedly rejects attacks on this community through the media and government.” The spokesperson added that the union “would not sit idly by while a culture war is fueled to challenge their [transgender people’s] existence.”
The motion also decides that Congress should commend the University of Sussex UCU branch for its ‘solidarity’ with student protests against philosopher Kathleen Stock, after she was accused of transphobia over her views. on gender. Stock claimed the statement “end[ed] his career” at Sussex and subsequently resigned.
Smith said a lesbian feminist scholar losing her job should not be celebrated and that the failure of the local UCU branch to support her right to participate in public policy debates on women’s rights “sets a precedent destructive”.
“Academic freedom is a core value of higher education, and freedom of expression within the law is an essential prerequisite for democratic debate,” Smith said, adding that she believed unions were more effective when organized on the broadest basis of the common interest of the members. .
The creation of the Feminist Gender Equality Network, which opposes transphobia on campuses and more broadly, is also welcomed by the motion.
The co-founders of this network, Sally Hines, holder of the chair of sociology at the University of Sheffield, and Natacha Kennedy, lecturer in education at Goldsmiths, University of London, said they were “reassured” to see “the ‘commitment to advancing the inclusion of trans and non-binary staff and students’, as the ‘pushback’ of gender-sensitive academics ‘makes trans and non-binary students vulnerable’.
“UCU’s motion rightly highlights the importance of creating higher education cultures that are fully inclusive and safe working and learning spaces for people of all genders,” they added.
But Jo Phoenix, who is suing the Open University, her former employer, in labor court for claiming it failed to protect her from on-campus harassment because of her views on sex and gender, said predicted that more academics like her would leave the union, as they felt it no longer served them, speculating that it was likely that some might consider starting another union.
Phoenix, now professor of criminology at the University of Reading, said academic freedom was the “cornerstone” of what it was to be an academic and argued it was a “sad and sorry situation that some within the UCU seemed prepared – as she saw – to sacrifice this, particularly at a time when “academics are generally under such attack and their conditions are deteriorating”.
“A union is supposed to protect the working conditions of all its members, and this especially includes not being harassed on the basis of their political beliefs,” she added.
The UCU spokesman said ‘ministers and others should tackle the real issues in the sector’ rather than ‘pretending that defending the rights of the most marginalized is a threat’.
“We are clear that advocacy for trans and non-binary people is essential to improving conditions for all post-16 education staff and students, and we look forward to the 2022 UCU Congress reaffirms this position,” he added.