Education International
Education International

Building international solidarity through development cooperation among Higher Education Unions

published 13 November 2012 updated 13 November 2012

There is a popular Ghanaian saying, “All fingers are not equal”. Indeed, some are stronger than others, some are longer than others, and some are efficient than others. At certain times, however, they collaborate to overcome difficult challenges.

Global challenges and the need for reciprocal sharing of best practices leave us with no option but to pool energies and resources for better performance as Higher Education (HE) Unions.

Generally, Development Cooperation (DC) is a long-term partnership between the global North and South, South and South (Africa, parts of Asia and Latin America) and Triangular (Brazil, India, China, and South Africa).

It enables one partner to move to the aid of the other in areas including good governance, gender equality, human and trade union rights, information and communication technology, education, poverty alleviation, infrastructural development, environmental sustainability, and capacity building. Various international conferences and gatherings have sought to highlight the necessity of DC.

International cooperation

Article 55 of the Charter of the United Nations (UN) provides for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on mutual respect. The need for universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedom for all without discrimination based on race, sex, language or religion has been high on the UN’s international cooperation agenda.

International cooperation therefore seeks to achieve higher standards of living, decent work, economic and social progress, quality education, improved health care, environmental protection, and human rights.

Ideally, DC should be a mutual relationship between partners operating on an equal keel and providing reciprocal support to each other. However, resource constraints and development imbalances have rendered DC asymmetrical.

North-South Cooperation now means the North providing development assistance to the South, thus reducing DC to the relationship of ‘the haves’ and ‘have nots’. The global South comprising Africa, parts of Asia and Latin America, have found it difficult to forge stronger cooperation among themselves mainly due to their relatively weak economies.

In recent times, however, emerging economies such as Brazil, India, China, and South Africa have taken DC to another level in what is now christened the triangular cooperation. The triangular cooperation usually involves three countries (one from the North, one from the emerging economies in the south, and one from the developing economies).

Teacher union cooperationTeacher Union Cooperation operates within the broader context of DC among countries. Attempting to engage in union cooperation without following national policies and protocols is a sure attempt to fail.

Most unions in the North are resourced through their national agencies to provide assistance in various forms to their counterparts in the South and this can only be achieved through their broad national policies.

Cooperation among HE unions is almost non-existent in the South, particularly in Africa, as the unions are not well organised. The unions are built on weak foundations and lack the structures of ideal labour unions.

In Ghana, for instance, HE unions such as University Teachers’ Association of Ghana (UTAG) and Polytechnic Teachers’ Association of Ghana (POTAG), do not have a permanent secretariat, their leadership operates on part-time basis, and they are not affiliated to any international bodies.

Gaps in communicationEven though they engage in collective bargaining on behalf of members, they consider themselves more of a professional body than a labour union. These are not peculiar to HE unions in Ghana but in many southern countries. Membership commitment is usually low as most faculties are hardly aware of union activities with the exception, perhaps, of industrial action.

Reverend Doctor Edwards, from Ghana University of Education, agrees that most academic staff have never come across their union’s collective agreement with the university. Indeed, advocacy for collegial governance and academic freedom have not been on the agenda of UTAG for many years.

Former UTAG president Doctor Asiedu Addo acknowledges that, while the association negotiates salaries and allowances on behalf of members, it has no formal collective agreement with the employer. He likewise agrees that academic freedom, collegial governance and copyright issues are very important but they have never been prioritised within the Association.

Unions in Africa face a lot of challenges but hardly receive global attention because they are not well-known outside their own countries. Currently, there are only a few HE unions in Africa which are members of Education International (EI). Building solidarity among HE unions in Africa is therefore made difficult as they continually shy away from the international community.

Weak solidarity in South Solidarity and cooperation are also weak among HE unions in the South because development aids from donor countries concentrate on early childhood education and free compulsory basic education.

And, as cooperation has been apparently redefined to mean provision of development assistance to developing countries, HE unions are left out of the equation. International conferences, such as the HE and Research Conference which is organised every two years under the auspices of EI, could have been a major platform if some leaders could be sponsored by other HE unions to attend.

Unequal relationship

Globally, DC among HE unions is still very weak partly because many still see DC as a master-servant relationship between the North and the South. A change in this perspective would improve relationships significantly.

For instance, the CAUT of Canada and AAUP of America have a reciprocal solidarity and cooperation agreement that enables a union member in, say Canada, to enjoy the protection of a partner union, in this case the AAUP, if they move to work in the US.

This type of solidarity brings the parties to a symmetrical level and there is a reciprocal benefit for all. This type of cooperation is necessary as it promotes symbioses and mutual partnership which makes it less difficult to be efficient in this era of globalisation, transnationalisation and commercialisation of HE.

Where partnership in DC is between the endowed and the less endowed, there is the need for the less endowed to be aided in diverse ways. The areas of assistance may include:

  1. Capacity building for union leaders. Training workshops and seminars can be organised for union leaders both at home and abroad. This will bring weak unions up to date in international best practices in industrial relations and collective bargaining.
  2. Research co-operation: Unions can collaborate to undertake research work to back their proposal for negotiation. Currently, CAUT and NAGRAT are collaborating to undertake a study on the impact of class sizes on teacher performance and teacher retention.
  3. Training on membership recruitment and retention. These are trying times for unions the world over in terms of membership. Studies persistently show a continuous decline in union membership across the world. The need to convince teachers to join unions has become more important than ever before.
  4. There is also the need to develop strategies to retain union membership. Co-operation among HE unions in Africa and across the world can help increase access to best practices for the benefit of individual unions. Different strategies adopted by various unions to achieve union goals can be discussed at this level.
  5. Advocacy on pertinent issues that have direct implications on the profession such as copyright issues, collegial governance, academic freedom, gender equality, funding of HE, quality assurance, among others. If unions are not as functional as expected, they are unable to shape opinions on crucial issues.

DC has been considered as a huge platform for wealth redistribution and a tool for solidarity. The UN advocates nations to allocate at least 0.7 per cent of their GDP for DC activities. In the same vein, EI also entreats its members to set aside 0.7 per cent of their gross union dues for cooperation and solidarity work.

Much as DC among teacher unions has been touted as a major platform for helping relatively weaker unions to provide appropriate services to their membership and enabling these unions to perform their social partnership roles as expected, these relationships have always come with associated challenges.

Issues of control of the relationship, compatibility of the unions involved, continuity of projects, and ownership of projects can be mentioned among others.

North-South issues

As already espoused, the global south tends to depend heavily on the North in terms of solidarity and co-operation.  Of course, not much can be done to reverse this trend in the current state of ownership of world’s resources.

Figures from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) indicate that about 10 per cent of the world’s population owns 85 per cent of world’s resources and over a billion people in the world go to bed hungry on daily basis.

As the majority of these one billion people who live below the poverty line are found in the South, the dependency factor in union solidarity will simply not go away. And as one party in the relationship controls resources, there is always the tendency for mutual respect to give way to one-party dominance. What has been happening in such situations is that projects are not customised to meet the needs of the beneficiaries.

A programme can be initiated and funded by a partner but care must always be taken to adapt such programme to suit local needs. Thus, such programmes should always be situated in a social context. Many programmes have failed in Africa because there were no cultural, religious, economic and political considerations of the beneficiaries.

Empowerment, ownership, partnershipThe need for empowerment and project continuity has featured prominently as a challenge to union cooperation in Africa. Projects are designed and implement without any provision for their continuity after the gestation period.

To meet the need to build a system reflecting ownership and partnership, we must recognise that forging a shared vision and commitment for development requires more than the signing of protocols. A partnership can only be credible when constitutional safeguards foster trust and mutually accountable parties must be assured of their agreed tasks.

In addition, interventions should be firmly anchored in the economic, educational and cultural frameworks of the larger community of a given union taking into consideration the strengths and weaknesses of that union.

Further to that, the recipient organisation must be in charge of formulating coherent strategies for development projects built around a set of integrated policy priorities and investment proposals, with the strategies covering a reasonable time span.

The Accra Agenda for Action was clear on the need to tackle both the root cause and the symptoms of development issues. That also stresses the need for project continuity. Finally, cooperation among HE unions must first acquire legitimacy by engaging all the important actors especially by following appropriate protocols and operating within the DC framework of national and international processes such as the Paris Declaration, Accra Agenda for Action, and the Busan Partnership.

Forging solidarity is key

In conclusion, trade union cooperation and solidarity have been major contributors to the promotion and defence of trade union rights in Africa.

Many teacher unions in Africa such as  GNAT, SLTU, KNUT, TTU, NUT, UNATU, ZNUT, and ZIMTA owe their current status to DC activities undertaken by teacher unions such as  CTF, UEN, Lararforbundet, NEA, GEW, SNES, UNSA and AFT. However, most of the above unions are pre-tertiary education unions.

It is a truism but one worth repeating that HE unions cannot continue to survive in isolation, considering the global trend in HE delivery. That HE unions need to take DC seriously and try to synergise with others both internally and externally has become more obvious than ever.

Given the current trend of globalisation and the extent to which universities are extending their existence beyond national boundaries, HE unions run the risk of irrelevancy if they do not network efficiently.

The mandate for us now is a call to action on building solidarity through cooperation among HE unions in Africa and the world over.

Strong unions globally, such as the AAUP, CAUT, NTEU, UCU, SULF, DM, IFUT, NARW, AUSNZ among others, might think of turning to the south, particularly Africa, to help build strong HE unions through cooperation.

By Christian Addai-Poku, President of the National Association of Graduates Teachers (NAGRAT, Ghana)