UCU General Secretary Jo Grady: 'Growing up in Wakefield, I saw how politics was personal'

Growing up in Wakefield, Jo Grady saw unfairness everywhere she looked.

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady. Photo: UCU
UCU General Secretary Jo Grady. Photo: UCU

Living with the consequences of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and with a colliery worker father who took part in the miners’ strikes, she said it was impossible to ignore the impact politics has “on a micro level, every day”.

Passing through the Lupset council estate as a child, which at one point was the largest local government housing scheme in Europe, on the way home from English Martyrs Catholic Primary School, the now general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) would wonder about those who lived there and their circumstances.

“I always remember thinking these are really nice houses, they've got big gardens, there's big green spaces in between some of the roads,” she said.

“So why is it seen to be embarrassing to live here? Or why is it that there's a kind of a stigma with living here?

“They're just little questions that don't make sense to a child.”

Dr Grady, 36, grew up in what she called “a political household”.

When she was born her father, who worked at the Lofthouse colliery, among others, was striking, while her mother raised her two brothers.

The family later went on to run the Waterloo pub on Westgate End

“I was born in 1985 so there's no pretend memories on my behalf of the miners strike,” she said.

“I was obviously a tiny baby, but that was the household that I grew up in.”

What followed was a childhood led by a “compass for right and wrong and how we should treat people”, she said.

“And also the extent to which political and economic decisions aren't just things that dangle above us, they actually have real life consequences for people.”

And it is this that has led her to strive to make changes for workers in her sector, and further afield, culminating in her landslide election to lead the UCU last year.

“I remember, and I'm sure this is common for loads of kids at school, we would have non-uniform day, and you pay a pound not to wear your uniform,” Dr Grady said.

“I went to a Catholic school, so we would raise money for CAFOD [Catholic Agency for Overseas Development], and there were kids every now and again who couldn't afford to pay the pound, and to not wear their uniform.

“And there was a girl who we went to school with who, when all of her brothers got nits, everybody had their head shaved, and she did too.

“And as a kid you're like, why is this happening? Why did that happen to that person? Why does that boy get bullied at school because his mom can't afford a pound for him to wear his own clothes like everybody else?

“It sounds a bit of a grand thing to say now I'm a grown woman at 36, but I think you ask your parents for answers to why those things happen to some kids or not you, and I think I was very lucky that my parents gave me really informed answers about how, actually, some things are unfair, but they don't have to be and this is why.

“I think I just grew up with quite a sharp understanding that we're not just all players in some lottery of life, but the opportunities and life chances aren’t delivered in an equal way, but that doesn't have to be that way.”

Dr Grady was the first in her family to go to university, but she called the journey there an “unexpected route”.

After studying at St Thomas à Becket Catholic Secondary School in Wakefield she was the first of her family to study A-levels, where “great teachers” encouraged her to apply for a university place, which she secured in Lancaster, and she ended up staying on for postgraduate study, which she said she did not know even existed at the time.

“I got help to apply for a scholarship,” she said. “So I basically was offered free postgraduate education at university and from the kind of background I'm from it was like, who is going to turn that down?”

She then went on to become a lecturer in industrial relations, while being heavily involved in the UCU as a member.

“My unexpected route into higher education meant that I could teach people,” she said.

“But then I really enjoyed and thought that organising and educating through trade union activities was equally just as important, just a different way of reaching out to people.”

Education is in the spotlight more than ever due to the coronavirus pandemic, with tales of injustice over the A-levels saga in the summer, to how universities are reacting to trying to contain outbreaks on campus.

“I think the response to this pandemic has really revealed that unfairness and inequality are kind of woven through every fabric of our society, but also unfairness and inequality is maintained by choices,” Dr Grady said.

Pointing to the situation with A-levels where XXX, Dr Grady said it took 18-year-olds taking to the streets to force a Government U-turn.

“I think the reason that trade unionism, but also community activism more broadly, is important to me is that nothing that has ever been achieved in the last century has been achieved because we politicians have given it to people, it's been because people have demanded better.”

She added: “It's about inequality. But it's also about unfairness and the extent to which some people are just supposed to be the endless shock absorbers of the unfairness.”

The UCU has called for the majority of in-person teaching at universities to be scrapped, and for the Government to inject £2.5bn into the sector to allow people to access learning from home.

But Dr Grady believes it is the fees-based model of higher education in England which has led to this being ignored.

“The big peaks and outbreaks we see in Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield, from our own monitoring tool, we can trace them back to universities starting to reopen,” she said.

“And a bad funding regime led to bad decisions this year. It led to the Government having no other option than to encourage universities to promise students an in-person experience that was never going to be possible, so that they didn't have to underwrite the lost income to do with fees, accommodation, and all of the other consumer activities that sprung up in university cities that rely on students.

“And that's the stark reality of it, the reluctance to fund universities properly, even during a pandemic, which has been based on years of a marketised fees regime in the UK predating the Conservative Party, New Labour did this as well, which has meant that our university system was completely exposed to Covid in a way that the university systems in other European countries have not been.

“We’re now seeing the consequences of bringing students back to campuses that were always going to be incubators of the virus.”

Looking forward, Dr Grady said the UCU was going to push the Government to provide safe community spaces where students can study.

“We can't stay like this until March,” she said. “It was very different in the summer, people could maybe go outside into shared community spaces, it's not going to happen here, particularly not if you're from a low income household, you can't afford to be in a cold household if you can't put the heating on.”

And she stressed that despite a divisive picture often painted when academic staff go on strike, there was much more support from students.

“I think universities massively underestimate their students. And in my experience, and whether this is at a college level or university level, students fundamentally understand that staff working conditions are students’ learning conditions, and students become, understandably, very attached to their staff,” she said.

“When we've called strike action students have been on picket lines with staff and I think students have always known that universities could potentially behave this way, because occasionally they do see it.”

She added: “We’re going to have our hands full.”