Sometimes it is most important that a place feels right. For Jo Grady (BA Management and Organisation, 2005; MA Human Resource & Knowledge Management, 2006; PhD Organisation, Work and Technology, 2011), it was an accidental encounter with Lancaster that led her to find a true vocation.
“I was all set to study Anthropology, Sociology or English. My first choice was Durham. It was only my Auntie, who worked in business and was mentoring me through the whole UCAS process, that suggested I include Lancaster as my other option,” says Jo.
“I went with my mum to the open day at Lancaster and totally fell in love with the place. I loved the campus, the culture and the vibe of it all. I definitely wanted to go there but the Bachelor’s in Business Administration I’d put down on the form wasn’t the right course for me. Scouring the prospectus I found another programme that was focused on behaviour in organisations, so not miles away from what I was planning - anthropology, psychology, but in an organisational context. I was drawn to a lovely university and to a degree I didn’t know existed.”
In this way, Jo discovered the world of Industrial Relations - leading to a Master’s degree, PhD, work as a lecturer and now the role as General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), representing 120,000 employees across Higher and Further Education in the UK.
Jo was the first in her family to go to university, but always felt at home.
“Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t an especially working class kind of university. For the first time, I met people who’d been skiing for their holidays. But because of the mix of people, the friends I made, there was nothing unnerving about it. It was a really welcoming place from the start. For me, being at Furness, the Junior Common Room at my college was like the living room of the college. Whether you were there for a drink, the quiz night, or a cup of tea and a Curly Wurly, it was the space where the college would come together and we all looked out for each other.
“We’d meet the staff there too. The porters, who were like the grandparents of the college. And people from other departments, from History, Politics and Religion. It meant that when I was looking at postgraduate study I always wanted to stay in my college and wanted to be part of the Senior Common Room.”
It was an environment that encouraged Jo to explore deep-rooted personal interests and ambitions.
“I was born in 1984 to a striking miner and a mother who was raising her children in tough times. Discussions about workers’ rights were an important part of home life, and led to a predisposition for organising. My third year at Lancaster re-ignited those interests in industrial relations and trade unions. Support from one of the academics I would talk to in the JCR, Steve Fleetwood, encouraged me to apply for postgrad funding.”
Jo has since combined her work as an academic and researcher - putting theory into practice with roles as a trade union representative for UCU at the universities of Leicester and Sheffield, and at a time of renewed pressures on union organisations.
“The Government’s 2016 Act went further in trying to limit worker opportunities to organise themselves - at a time when there are low levels of industrial action, so without justification. We have seen a groundswell of interest in union membership, employees taking action against precarious employment and poor conditions, and UCU has gathered thousands of extra members in the last year. When there’s injustice the only way to respond is to stand up together.
“I wanted to lead UCU because I care about the sector. It’s so important to keep hold of the hallmarks of the sector: the pensions, decent pay, good policies on equalities, and good jobs not casualisation. We want to protect what education is actually for, it’s about priorities: questioning the marketisation of HE and FE, the impact of fees, the increased insecurity of employment terms. We’re standing up for staff and students at the same time.”
Higher Education is the making of many people, but it shouldn’t be seen as the only route, says Jo.
“University changed my life. It gave me space to think, to grow up. It’s critical that university education isn’t just an option for those who can afford it, that it’s not just thought about in terms of how it’s value for money, the return on investment. For some it’s no big deal to be away from home, but for many others it’s really important to have the chance to get away from their home town and develop themselves. But you shouldn’t worry if it’s not right for you, it’s not the only option - it has to feel right.”
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