Incoming EIS-ULA President Holly Patrick spoke to the SEJ about her upcoming role and we learned her thoughts on the challenges that lie ahead for Scottish Universities.

Can you tell us about your teaching and trade union background?

I have been in Higher Education in some form or another since I rocked up to Abertay University in 2004 thinking I had a career as a high flying business person. I soon found my real passion was in researching and lecturing, and completed my PhD at St Andrews in 2013 after 8 years, 3 degrees, and one term as a student president. I spent a couple of joyous years post-doctorate researching and teaching at the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia and returned in 2016 to take up a role at Edinburgh Napier University, where I have worked since. I was encouraged to join EIS-ULA on one of my first days in the job by union stalwart and now Fellow, Dr Vaughan Ellis, and became a Rep shortly thereafter. I have been Branch Secretary since 2020, and am honoured to have become the EIS-ULA President this year.

Your Presidential year comes at a unique time, with the Covid-19 pandemic still hanging over us – what impact has the pandemic had on the University sector?

As with our colleagues in Schools and Colleges, the University sector was hit hard by the pandemic. The difference in higher education is that although Universities receive a block grant from the government to cover undergraduate teaching, most of the rest of University finances are subject to fluctuation. In many cases, fees paid by non-EU and postgraduate students, alongside their accommodation payments, represent a large chunk of the cash flow for Universities. Both of these were heavily affected by the pandemic, leading to financial insecurity for a number of institutions. However, I have no doubt that the main impact of the pandemic has been on staff and students. University staff were expected within a very short time frame to make sure that an entire semester’s worth of learning was placed online. Universities never actually stopped teaching or assessing, so the volume of work required to transition everything online was massive, and in almost all cases completely unrecognised by workload models, additional payments, or time off in lieu. And finally the pandemic had a devastating effect on many students. Although we were able to keep teaching, many students were (and some continue to be) stuck hundreds or even thousands of miles from their families.

How concerned are you about the long-term impact of the pandemic on Scottish Universities?

Despite the uncertainty of Brexit and Covid-19, student numbers have stayed fairly robust. However, I am concerned about what the mooted cuts to Arts and Humanities south of the border and the loss of the Erasmus scheme will mean for the sector. Both of these are symptomatic of a view that the primary purpose of Universities is to produce employable graduates (in sectors the government deems ‘important’), and for me that couldn’t be further from the truth. Education is a human right, and University education is a very broad church enabling students to attain the knowledge, skills and the confidence to achieve their ambitions. Its about the making of citizens, not just employees. I also worry about the opportunity the pandemic has created for University managers to act with impunity. Universities are public organisations, run for the benefit of staff, students and society, and I think the new league of professional managers sometimes forgets that in the pursuit of growth (in students, in funding, in buildings). The recent FELA/ULA hustings saw some good commitments from Scottish candidates to the future of HE, and I hope they will be able to follow through on these.

What do you think will be the key priorities for your Presidential term?

We’ll be focussing on workload and stress, and due to the pandemic we will redouble our efforts on supporting members in their right to have a safe workplace, ensuring proper university governance, and in the shift to online teaching. We have already got the ball rolling with a working group to examine the implementation of workload models across the sector, and achieving any of our goals requires growing our branches and making sure that ULA Exec is as transparent and democratic as can be.

When you look back in the future, what do you hope will be the legacy of your term as EIS-ULA President?

Legacy is an awfy big word, but with the Scottish elections and the general political climate in Scotland, I hope there’s a bit of space to push the HE agenda and to work with NUS Scotland as well as our sister employment unions to hold University managers to account and improve conditions for our members. Other than that I sincerely hope that my pygmy goats will get a chance to do some campaigning, as dogs on the picket line is great but it needs a bit of a shake up, don’t you think?