Graduation at risk due to UCU marking boycott

THE UNIVERSITY and College Union (UCU) Higher Education Committee have been given the green light for a nationwide marking boycott due to commence from April 28th until the bitter pay disputes with university employers are resolved.

Photo - Lawrence Cullen

Photo – Lawrence Cullen

Last year, the University and College Union, Unison and Unite rejected the 1% pay rise offered to staff by employers, insisting that it equated to a 13% pay cut in real terms since October 2008. Meanwhile, vice-chancellors received wage increases averaging over 5%, with some said to now be receiving well over £350,000. However, only members of UCU will be taking the boycott action this April.

Final year students are likely to be badly affected as, if this boycott goes ahead, their final semester modules are unlikely to be marked, including dissertations and exams. This potentially means that they will be unable to officially graduate in the summer.

This will have a run-on effect for those who are hoping to commence further study in September, and could hinder the ability of many to find work or internships. This will also affect all students awaiting progression in lower years.

In a letter to union members, UCU’s General Secretary, Sally Hunt, stated that by setting the April date for the boycott,  they have “provided a window of opportunity for the employers to address our just demands” in the forthcoming ten week period.

Hunt said: “I fail to see how any university can claim to have students’ best interests at heart if it is not pushing for talks with the union to resolve this dispute.

“The strong support for our action so far demonstrates how angry staff are at the hypocrisy over pay in our universities. The employers cannot plead poverty when it comes to staff pay and then award enormous rises to a handful at the top.”

UCU have not implemented a marking boycott since 2006. This drastic move by the Union has been announced as it’s “ultimate sanction” which could provide huge leverage in resolving the escalated pay disputes. In addition, this movement is said to come with extra fire as students’ frustrations would also project onto University management, potentially forcing quicker action.

Sally Hunt said “A marking boycott is the ultimate sanction, but an avoidable one if the employers would negotiate with us over pay…no member I have spoken to wishes to see this dispute escalate, but in the continued absence of meaningful negotiations from the employers, we are left with no alternative.”

UCU-logoA Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) spokesperson said: “Higher education institutions will certainly be disappointed that the UCU is still threatening a marking boycott, as this is action that is once again aimed directly at students’ education.”

“Both UCU and higher education institutions are well aware that strike support has dwindled still further in recent weeks, with the overwhelming majority of staff not taking part and having no wish to disrupt students’ education. It is quite extraordinary for the UCU to be planning yet more action over last year’s pay uplifts with the 2014-15 pay negotiations due start in March.”

In response to this, Universities are likely to impose a 100% pay deduction for ‘partial performance’, and result in pay docking and considerable pay deductions.

At Aberystwyth University, previous strikes have resulted in threats that a full days’ pay might be docked in the future for a two-hour strike.

In a letter to staff, Aberystwyth University said: “If on future occasions of action we withhold full pay and you take two-hour strike action but perform your normal work during the rest of that day, this will be at your discretion and Aberystwyth University will be under no obligation to pay you at all for any work done that day.”

According to law, when staff strike they are in breach of their contract of employment and it is lawful for employers to dock pay, however Government advice states “employers should only deduct the amount that the employee would have earned during the strike”.

Martin Wilding, President of UCU Aberystwyth said “As far as the local branch is aware Aberystwyth University has so far only deducted for the 2 hours, however the tone of the letter sent to staff was clearly threatening and served to escalate rather than diffuse the situation.”

A University spokesperson said “It is the policy of Aberystwyth University to withhold pay of staff who participates in the industrial action. It will not accept the partial performance of the contract of any member of staff. The national employers association UCEA has advised that universities are entitled to withhold a full day’s pay for…a part-day strike.”

“Aberystwyth University has taken a view as to the likely impact of employees’ participation in this industrial action on the university and the appropriate amount of pay to be withheld in the circumstances and decided to withhold two hours’ pay for the two-hour strikes that have taken place.”

“The amount withheld may therefore be reviewed, in which case staff will be advised in advance of any future action.”

The UCU is currently compiling guideline for members on what the boycott will include, below are some points indicated on their website:

  • Not marking students’ work (this includes both formative and summative assessments). Work includes coursework (essays, portfolios, dissertations, films, works of art etc.) examinations, placements, assessed presentations etc

  • Not communicating marks – either by or to administrators, colleagues, managers. Not verbally, electronically or on paper. Of course if no one does any marking at all this point is redundant, but we need to advise members what to (not) do about any work that has been marked

  • Not giving feedback on students’ work in a manner from which a mark (even pass/fail) could be reasonably deducted (this is important in case universities try to progress/graduate students on partial sets of marks)

  • Not attending examination boards and any examination board preparation meetings, e.g. ones to check marks, discuss extenuating circumstances etc

  • The ‘not marking’ principle should apply to all categories of students. This includes overseas students taught in UK and students on professional courses who need to complete a certain stage of study successfully before being allowed into placement settings such as hospital wards, research degree students etc.