UCU Election & Migrant-Washing: A View from URBC

On Friday 16 February, the UCU Black Members Standing Committee (UCU BMSC) began their boycott of University College Union (UCU). This boycott comes, as UCU BMSC explains in a statement, after years of,  

[…] bureaucratic hurdles and tokenistic gestures that diminish our agency and representation. Our official complaints have been met with unsatisfactory ‘resolution’, and the union leadership has failed to honour our democratic process, decision-making and political agency. Furthermore, the anti-racist work we do for our constituencies and the wider membership has been further hampered as UCU has not provided us with a dedicated support official for our committee for the last 5 months at this critical time for global anti-racism.

The UCU BMSC boycott is significant given only five months ago, Hakim Adi, one of the only Black history professors in the UK, was made redundant by the University of Chichester. As a member of UCU, when Professor Adi approached the union for legal support, he was instead denied by UCU this urgent support. As Professor Adi has stated, support for him and protecting the MRes programme “has not been effusive” from within UCU.

The mistreatment of UCU BMSC and Professor Adi follows a long history of UCU hostility towards its racialised members. Ten years ago, in November 2014, at the UCU Equality Conference, the BMSC walked out of the event in protest because they had “no trust or confidence in the UCU’s commitment towards fighting racism at the workplace and eradicating institutional racism from its structures and services.” Instead of listening and taking on board their concerns, conference staff and security were called to remove the protest of BMSC. As Unis Resist Border Controls (URBC) expressed in our solidarity statement of the BMSC boycott, “[…] when UK higher education is largely composed of white British staff, it is hardly surprising that the same xeno-racist dynamics that play out in our university workplaces also are transferred to within UCU and its structures.”

At a time of a rather contentious UCU election that will decide who the new general secretary is along with trustees, Vice President for further education and the NEC, and as the BMSC have bravely and once again reminded their union of the institutional racism that plagues UCU, URBC will like to take this time to remind UCU members of the institutional xenophobia and lack of solidarity from union members with migrant issues that do not support their particular class interests.

As largely racialised migrant university staff and students in UK higher education who comprise URBC, we are nearing our eight-year anniversary (5 March). In these eight years, URBC has created a vitally important route for migrant staff and student activism on campus in being the first organisation to challenge and resist the Hostile Environment policy & marketised system that specifically harms migrant students and staff. In these eight years, URBC has made firm links with a number of UCU branches who have supported our work. This includes Birmingham UCU, Durham UCU, Kingston UCU, Manchester UCU, Sussex UCU, Queen Mary UCU, and Ulster UCU. However, apart from branch support, we have seen national UCU use their position to ignore and isolate URBC, a woeful failure to take on points we raise and more importantly a failure of UCU to support their migrant members, best exemplified by the treatment of Riham Sheble, sick with terminal cancer, who was severely let down by national UCU when they refused to grant her legal support in her case against the University of Warwick. It is URBC that has continued to take on the bulk of difficult and intense casework concerning migrant staff and students, some of whom are UCU members who have been catastrophically let down by both their branch and national UCU.

In the following sections, URBC critically unpacks how, during her tenure as General Secretary of UCU, Dr Jo Grady skillfully used the grassroots activism of URBC in ending the Hostile Environment policy in UK higher education to essentially get herself elected. This piece will also examine conservative policies promoted by the Migrant Members’ Committee (MMC), created to ingratiate Dr Grady to migrant members and encourage them to join the union. Yet, the creation of the MMC can also be seen as a way for Dr Grady and UCU to co-opt more radical migrant grassroots activism by watering it down into union bureaucracy. Ultimately, questions must be asked of UCU from the national HQ down to individual branches, regarding their true commitment in ending the Hostile Environment policy and working with, namely, grassroots border abolition groups that are migrant-led, which are  already doing the significant work and solidarity building on this matter.

URBC & UCU General Secretary, Dr Jo Grady

In April 2019, Dr Grady approached URBC via Ms Sanaz Raji’s direct message on Facebook. Ms Raji is the primary caseworker at URBC, founded in March 2016. URBC is a migrant-led national campaign of those who are university lecturers, staff and students working together to end the Hostile Environment policy within UK higher education. Dr Grady was keen to get URBC’s advice concerning the Hostile Environment policy for her election bid for the General Secretary spot. Through their FB direct conversations that you can access here, Ms Raji explained the importance of including the barriers caused by the 180-day rule into Dr Grady’s manifesto and other campaign points, given the number of academics affected, that went viral with the case of Dr Asiya Islam. When Dr Grady’s campaign manifesto was published, she took on Ms Raji’s advice and included the 180-day rule, even including the link of a piece concerning the case of Dr Miwa Hirono, originally shared by Ms Raji during the FB direct conversation. Dr Grady also put a link to a USSbriefs piece written by URBC members. Additionally, in Dr Grady’s 2019 manifesto, she mentioned specifically the work of URBC, stating, 

Powerful staff-led campaigns […] have laboured too long without official support. As General Secretary of UCU, I will create a dedicated task group for surveillance and security issues in colleges and universities (page 16).

URBC members were happy to endorse Dr Grady’s General Secretary bid in 2019 predicated on the belief that she was serious in her intentions of centring our work and working with URBC to end the Hostile Environment policy in UK higher education. A few months after Dr Grady was elected as the new General Secretary, URBC representatives had a meeting in November 2019 with both her and the GS Assistant for Research and Strategy, Dr Nick Hardy. At the meeting, URBC representatives discussed research findings from our study on the Hostile Environment policy in UK higher education, published in The Guardian. Chief among our concerns at the time of the meeting was the result from our study that over half of UK university staff did not understand how the Hostile Environment policy functioned in higher education. Another concern was how increased monitoring was worsening institutional racism towards racialised migrant university staff and students alike. For these reasons, URBC representatives proposed a joint working strategy with UCU, where URBC would design workshops specifically for UCU members. We also discussed working on a toolkit, again in a partnership with UCU. Dr Grady and Dr Hardy liked both proposals but it was Dr Grady who indicated that any partnership with UCU would need to be approved by the newly established Migrant Members’ Committee (MMC). While URBC was glad that a committee within UCU had been established for the union’s migrant members, we were also concerned that barriers had suddenly been created to any joint URBC and UCU partnership on education and outreach on ending the Hostile Environment. Sensing some concern from URBC, Dr Grady once again offered that URBC would be invited soon to take part in a dedicated task group, as mentioned in her manifesto, concerning surveillance and migrant issues. When URBC representatives asked when that dedicated task force would be meeting so that we could clear our diaries, Dr Grady responded that the task force was still in its early days and that we would be notified in due course.

When URBC representatives left the meeting, we decided to adopt a ”wait and see” approach to Dr Grady’s policies. While some of them seemed promising, we felt at the time that while having a committee of migrant members in the union was a positive step, it could also become abused by conservative, class-based arguments that we had seen post-Brexit. In the period before the finalisation of Brexit, the model-migrant discourse, particularly among white Western European citizens, had become the norm in proving to a Conservative government why certain migrants, predominantly those who are middle class, with advanced qualifications should be promoted and, more importantly, protected within an increasingly draconian and vicious bordering system. URBC along with other border abolition groups were concerned about the prevalence of this model-migrant discourse and how it was creating cleavages in potential collective struggle against the state violence promoted and expanded each year as a result of the Hostile Environment policy, which had expanded to include EU citizens, along with non-EU migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented or irregular migrants. 

After five years, we can clearly see that indeed, our concerns have unfortunately come true. However, URBC would soon learn that Dr Grady was less interested in a collective approach to ending Hostile Environment policy within UK higher education that would include marginalised groups such as asylum seekers and refugee students, in addition to other precarious migrant communities living near university communities. Instead, UCU under Dr Grady began promoting the views of International and Broke  while having established the MMC to stifle more grassroots interventions led by URBC and other border abolition organisations concerned about borders in higher education. The next section will briefly explain more about International and Broke and how their activism, specifically around migrant university staff, created the very divisions that URBC was concerned about. 

International and Broke
International and Broke was formed during or after the 2018 UCU strike as a WhatsApp group of migrant UCU members. Unlike URBC, International and Broke did not engage in either casework or working with other border abolition groups. Instead, their mission was as a lobby group within UCU for migrants coming from other Global Northern countries. In Grady’s 2019 manifesto, International and Broke was mentioned in her section on Hostile Environment. In April 2018, International and Broke set up an X (formerly Twitter) page. The only existence of International and Broke is their now defunct page on X (formerly Twitter). The 2018 UCU strike was instrumental for many reasons, but specifically in that it broke new ground for migrant union members who were permitted to engage in strike action without it affecting their immigration status. Riding on this, International and Broke sought to resist the Hostile Environment as an employment issue. We can see how this would have been a natural progression for International and Broke members coming off of the 2018 UCU strike which had galvanised renewed interest in unionisation, particularly within precarious university staff.

One chief interest of International and Broke was making it mandatory for universities (i.e., employers) to pay for visa and International Health Surcharge (IHS) fees. Already a handful of UK universities, particularly the more elite Russell Group members, were paying these fees in order to entice global talent into their institutions. While visa fees had existed for a number of years, IHS fees were a completely new governmental policy. IHS fees were introduced in April 2015 as part of the first wave of the Hostile Environment policy with the passing of the Immigration Act of 2014, to “ensure that migrants make a proper financial contribution to the cost of their NHS care.” Prior to April 2015, temporary migrants did not have to pay for NHS care. However, in the early noughties, right-wing newspapers began amplifying stories of migrants engaged in “health tourism”, claiming that these migrants, often racialised pregnant women, were abusing the NHS to gain free healthcare. Docs Not Cops (DnC), a grassroots organisation of NHS health professionals, was established in 2014 to fight racism, xenophobia, and barriers as the result of the Hostile Environment policy against migrants getting healthcare, and vehemently opposed the notion that health tourism was overtaking the NHS. DnC created the #PatientsNotPassports campaign to galvanise support of healthcare professionals to oppose the Hostile Environment policy in the NHS. URBC has supported DnC on many of their actions, highlighting why the #PatientsNotPassports campaign was important for migrant staff and students.

In 2017, upfront charges were introduced by the NHS, creating further barriers for undocumented or irregular migrants and failed asylum seekers in accessing the NHS. As a result of this draconian policy explained in this DnC blog, Windrush generation members like Elfreda Spencer and undocumented/irregular migrants like Nasar Ullah Khan were turned away from receiving urgent and critical care on the NHS and told that to access NHS care they would be required to pay the upfront charges of £30,000+. Elfreda Spencer and Nasar Ullah Khan are among 900 irregular migrants who have been denied critical care on the NHS unless they pay upfront charges. Many of these 900 irregular migrants, like Spencer and Khan, have died as a result of being unable to pay the exorbitant costs demanded by the NHS for access to urgent care.

We bring up the DnC and their #PatientsNotPassports campaign to underscore the limited migrant solidarity politics of International and Broke who envisioned challenging some aspect of the Hostile Environment, namely IHS fees, through making employers, namely the university, responsible for paying these fees. Positing one aspect of the Hostile Environment policy via IHS fees as a labour matter for which universities should be responsible for paying, willfully and disturbingly ignores the deeply carceral policies that are essentially killing the most precarious migrants—asylum seekers and undocumented or irregular migrants. In turn, it forgets that universities are not only made of migrants who are on work or student visas, but that there are migrants who are refugees and asylum seekers on Sanctuary Scholarships in addition to other migrants like cleaning and custodial staff. In 2022, SOAS refugee and asylum seeker students launched, with the help of URBC and SOAS Students’ Union, #NoSanctuaryAtSOAS, demanding better provisions including support in registering with a GP because of the enormous barriers in access healthcare as a direct result of the Hostile Environment policy. When #NoSanctuaryAtSOAS refugee and asylum seeker activists learned that academic staff at a number of universities get their IHS fees paid for by their employers, the feeling was overwhelming frustration and disgust, with one asylum seeker student part of the campaign stating, “It’s one policy for the [lecturers] and another for asylum seeker students who they claim to care about.”

This is why we believe International and Broke unintentionally, through perhaps a lack of their own understanding of carceral border structures, created a wedge in collective migrant organising in higher education, by making Hostile Environment a financial issue that should be taken care of by universities, rather than a deeply inhumane policy that should be eradicated as it dictates who lives and who dies.

UCU Migrant Members’ Committee
The MMC was formally established in February 2020, after their first national conference, which heavily promoted International and Broke over the work of URBC. Four years on, there continues to be a troubling lack of awareness by the MMC about the Hostile Environment policy and how it functions both within and outside of higher education. This was clearly seen this past summer, when the MMC responded in July to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s announcement that visa and IHS fees would increase, with the claim that funds generated would be used to pay for wage increases for public sector workers.

The UCU MMC “Trade Union Migrant Solidarity Statement” posited against Sunak’s visa and IHS fees hike that:

Migrants to the UK are overwhelmingly either workers, students, or children. They are individuals who are either contributing or will contribute in the future to economic productivity and pay their fair share of tax and national insurance contributions. They are also likely to be younger and healthier than the overall UK population, making less use of the NHS.”

All migrants deserve medical care regardless of how much medical care they need, or whether they are “workers, students, or children,” an ableist distinction that we must also problematise. This language generates a wedge between young, healthy and able-bodied migrants, and older, disabled and chronically ill migrants. Given the issue of upfront NHS charges as discussed above, the IHS is not the only site of extortion of migrants in healthcare access. Further, the labour value of migrants cannot be the starting, middle or end point of our argument for decent lives. Creating a moral hierarchy such as this opens many doors for both universities and the government to continue to generate conditions and stipulations, endlessly moving goalposts, to keep the “wrong” type of migrants out and continue to criminalise patients. We have seen border policies elsewhere (such as Canada and Australia) use disability and medical conditions as a means for denying visa applications. 

This spits in the face of efforts like #LetRihamStay which should have shown people in the UCU that protecting the most vulnerable of us protects us all. When we think about all the workers affected in debilitating ways by long-Covid and not receiving adequate protections, and know that this could happen to any of us, it should make us wary of allowing arguments that place our value in our (most likely merely temporary) lack of disability. 

To sum this up, we refer to an email we received last year, the content of which is an example of the concern we have around certain rhetoric amongst UCU migrant members, who should be in solidarity with the work of URBC.

We were shocked to receive this email from a current member of the MMC who insinuated that the marking and assessment boycott (MAB) was a “form of racialised violence against students of colour”. The academic claimed that UCU had chosen to disregard what they termed as “legal risks”, referring to a delay/prevention of migrant students from receiving their degrees due to the MAB. URBC responded with an explanation that the precarity that migrant staff and students face, as highlighted as a potential result of the MAB, was at the hands of university executives and the Home Office, who exact border controls upon migrants.

This MMC member then claimed that URBC had failed to give proper “scrutiny” on the industrial action in relation to migrant students for a “campaign committed to migrant rights.” Given this academic’s obvious anti-strike views and their failure to engage with the substantive points that we had clearly outlined in our message to them, we decided to not respond to their accusation, as it was clear they had a very woeful understanding of the strike, in addition to the fact that it is university managers and the Home Office that are at fault for the precarious treatment of migrant students, not UCU industrial action.

We feel this is a symptom of privileged self-involvement, as well as myopic analysis, sadly coming from a UCU member from the MMC. For example, we hope that university workers, union or not, will be able to understand that universities covering visa costs will ultimately only weaken the UCU and work against the interests of migrants, as migrant staff will be even more beholden to universities than they are now and vulnerable to pressure not to participate in industrial action. We already see plenty of people who labour under the delusion that being on visas completely prevents participation in industrial action. We worry that the lack of sensitivity to these power issues within the UCU and a lack of outreach to migrants in higher education may result in more migrant higher education staff scabbing, due to fear of reprisals in the form of refusals to cover immigration-related costs. This would serve to drive another wedge between the workers. We have already heard of cases where managers use the offer of helping with immigration-related costs as a carrot to make their subordinates more compliant, and when this fails, the offer of this financial help has dried up. In retrospect, it seemed odd for UCU to have a dedicated migrant committee within the union rather than streamline migrant issues within the main strands of equality work, particularly the BMSC, Disabled Members’ Standing Committee (DMSC). Migrant issues intersect with many other equality issues and particularly racism and ableism, which are exactly the structural barriers fostered by the Hostile Environment policy.


After five years of consistently trying to engage with UCU, we have no faith that UCU will either change anytime soon, or begin working with grassroots organisations like ours or championing emancipatory politics in a coalition of migrants fighting to end the Hostile Environment policy and other oppressive immigration policies. We remind UCU members that real, fundamental change won’t happen with the election of a new General Secretary who will be making a salary of over £100,000 a year along with the usual perks of being head of a major union. It is for this reason why we have not been invested in the UCU elections given our previous experience with Dr Grady and how disturbingly URBC was tokenised by her and others within the union when we repeatedly reached out to do collaborative work to resist and end oppressive and draconian bordering processes in our universities and communities. We are concerned with how MMC members are, on one hand, willing to call themselves migrants, and yet on the other hand, emboldening a type of conservative migrant policy that in turn oppresses all precarious migrants.

UCU leadership can drive certain partnerships and strategies, but the union’s deeply hierarchical structure and entrenchment in the status quo, and the way this structure rewards careerism over political clarity—rather than radical, abolitionist vision—means that the union will consistently and predictably default to conservative positions and policies. Therefore an election will not change the issues we have identified here. Change must come from below.

Finally, even now, while UCU claims to be a union opposed to the Hostile Environment policy, the union is using Civica, a division of Capita, to collate and count votes. As revealed through a Corporate Watch investigation, Capita is lobbying the UK government for more carceral policies like GPS tracking and electronic tagging of both detained migrants and prisoners.  As UCU continues to not divest USS pensions from genocidal investments, the union simply cannot claim to be ending Hostile Environment policy while they persist in working with and/or investing in companies that strengthen UK’s draconian border regime.