Profile: Sally Hunt

Just because Sally Hunt says she isn’t “macho” doesn’t mean you should underestimate her powers as a union leader. She has a biography of Catherine De Medici in her office, after all.

Ms Hunt is the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU). Representing educational workers is something she’s done all her working life and it’s clear, from the moment I enter her office, she’s a professional in the true sense of the word.

“You have to be incredibly honest behind the scenes with people,” she says. Whether it’s working out how far to push the government in a pay dispute, or how to give support to Palestinian colleagues in the West Bank, Ms Hunt is clear that her role is as much about leadership as it is being a mouthpiece. “Often you end up not pleasing anyone at all.”

It would be disingenuous to suggest her role is that of a militant leader of the usual union kind. Instead Ms Hunt’s professional approach reflects a new breed of general secretary, less “hard-talking” and reluctant to be put into a box.

Being a “completely committed socialist and trade unionist” helps, but Ms Hunt insists her number one commitment is to representing the members that put her in office. “My job is to keep them in work with terms and conditions where they’re able to concentrate on what they do,” she says.

Since the Association of University Teachers and NATFHE – the two unions representing staff in post-16 education – merged in 2006, she has been a committed general secretary. The decision to merge was fundamental to their attitude – “you have to have well-funded sectors that interlink” – and it has provided UCU with a united voice, a key advantage in its battles against employers.

“What we’ve actively done is recognise that education is something that overrides everything else in terms of the principles that we are proud to represent,” Ms Hunt says. UCU now stands as the single voice for post-16 education, occupying a vital position as the government seeks to re-skill workers amid economic gloom. “We’re looking at a sector that’s becoming increasingly diverse and we’re looking at the economy going into freefall. Reskilling the working population is an issue that will land right on our doorstep. we’re in poll position.”

That’s just as well, because UCU has a number of grievances it is determined to raise with the government. Top of the list is top-up fees, a major issue in 2004 when Ms Hunt’s predecessor union led the campaign against them that nearly brought down Tony Blair’s government. Next year a review is expected but the world has moved on and cross-party support is anticipated.

This won’t stop Ms Hunt opposing it. “I have no intention of doing anything less powerful than we did last time,” she says. UCU will argue top-up fees have created debt and had a negative impact on working class students.

“We’re probably going to be painted as refuseniks; naïve. The reason we’re holding out is because we’re a union made up of academics and education professionals. If they know that’s impacting on the experience of students have our job is to point that out and do it very loudly.”

Among UCU’s other major gripes are scrapped subsidies for second degrees, which the UCU points out received one of the least popular responses when examined at select committee level. Mixed messages on the reskilling issue were also seen in the narrowing funding agenda for Train to Gain, while the issue of academic freedom relating to reporting radicalised students has been a big frustration.

The cumulative impact of these problems has soured Ms Hunt’s view of the Labour government. It’s a common stance for union leaders to take and – while she wouldn’t welcome a Tory replacement – her complaints about New Labour are very familiar.

“Frankly they’ve got to get their act together,” she says on Labour’s “disparate” further education policy.

“The members I represent should be much better served by a Labour government than they are at the moment. I think they lost their way for quite a period of time.”

Strangely enough Ms Hunt may be making the headlines in the near future for reasons not directly related to New Labour. For most unions, pay is the bottom line.

Ms Hunt is almost Churchillian in the face of the gathering storm. Her employer representatives are refusing to accept independent arbitration over pay. Their failure to even get in touch with her following three separate requests has raised her suspicions that “they’re looking for a fight”.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) provides an answer which is neither black and white, she says. “But you need two to tango and if they are not willing to do that it tells me they are looking to have a confrontation rather than resolve it. That’s their call and there are consequences.

The ultimate test for a union leader is deciding when to take industrial action. Ms Hunt says the UCU is “fit for purpose” and prepared for such a move. At present talks are only in the “first set of shadow boxing” for the next three-year pay deal, but the UCU is already preparing its ultimate sanction.

“If they’re not willing to even. resolve how we talk to each other, I think the sector could be in for a rough ride,” she warns.

Ms Hunt’s style may be new – but don’t let the smile fool you. She’ll still force the employers’ hand if necessary.

“My track record says we will do that if we have to, but with great regret. I would rather not put my members or students in that situation. But it’s something that has to happen if we can’t resolve this in any other way.”