Staff to stage marking boycott

IT WAS ANNOUNCED on the 27th of October that academics at 69 higher education institutions will begin an assessment boycott from the 6th November after a ballot by the University and College Union (UCU). The action follows a ballot of UCU members about potential industrial action over proposed changes to their pension scheme, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, in which 87 percent of members who voted said they backed action short of a strike.

In the ballot,  the results of which were announced last Monday (20th October), 78 percent of members of UCU who voted said that they supported strike action over changes to the USS.

The turnout of 45 percent was the highest in a national higher education ballot since UCU was formed in 2006, the uniUCU-logoon said.

The union said it was unhappy that employers had presented their proposals as a fait accompli and had failed to address criticisms of the proposed scheme.

UCU negotiators claimed employers had “failed to provide a guarantee the employers were making any effort to protect the pensions of USS members.”

Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said that:

“The employers failed to convince us of the need for their dramatic changes or the reasons behind the methodology for its deficit reduction plan. Their proposals remain full of holes and the information they are apparently relying on to back them up keeps being exposed as misleading.”

Dr Martin Wilding,  President of UCU at Aberystywth stated that:

“Obviously this is not something we want to do; we’re in the business of teaching, but we need to send a message to the employer: if they won’t budge then neither will we. Although the marking boycott is regrettable, until the employer budges it will go ahead. The effects are far reaching and will influence higher education for years to come. Employees will have no basis to trust their employers again and there will be a lasting effect on morale, both nationally, and in Aberystwyth in particular, should employers take punitive action.”

He went on to say, “This is a national dispute between the USS and UCU, although Aberystwyth University could put pressure on the USS”. The USS is the Universities Superannuation Scheme; one of the main pension schemes for academics and academic-related staff in the United Kingdom.

Subsequently, Aberystwyth staff who took part in strikes in Freshers Week have found that pay deductions were not made  by 31st October, so those staff who took part in strike actions will now have deductions made on 28th November. Dr. Wilding hit out at the move by suggesting that  “in the run up to Christmas, the most expensive time of year…this clearly shows what the university’s intention is: to punish and bully staff.”

The USS has received criticism from a group of statisticians and financial mathematicians who have argued that each assumption in the USS 2013 annual report “is inadequately justified and that cumulatively they are unreasonably pessimistic and incoherent.”

“The predicted salary increases assume a buoyant economy while investment returns assume a recession. Members’ wages are assumed to grow by the retail price index plus 1 per cent (taken to be 4.4 per cent) plus incremental increases. Over the past 20 years the actual rate was about 2.7 per cent, with similar growth over thepast 10 years. Post-2008 rates show negative real-pay growth. It is remarkable, given the billions of pounds at stake and that USS members are voting about strike action, that there is no online modeller for individual members to calculate the implications of the new proposals for themselves.”

In a statement, the Sabbatical Officer team stated that:

“Aberystwyth University Students’ Union has resolved to stand by University staff as they undertake a marking boycott and are requesting that Vice-Chancellor April McMahon asks university employers to make a fair pension offer to end the boycott as soon as possible. Staff in 69 universities will begin a marking boycott this Thursday in protest at proposed changes to their pension scheme.”

Education Officer Grace Burton said:

“Nobody goes into teaching because they want to disrupt learning, but unfortunately some of our staff feel forced into this action. There is no industrial action that teaching staff could take which wouldn’t impact upon students, but we think that the longer-term risk that the most talented staff in our universities will take up careers elsewhere will be more damaging than the short term impact a boycott may have.”

We will be urging the University to do its bit in ending the dispute by encouraging University employers to make an offer in the national negotiations which staff are happy with, which will bring the boycott to an end. It’s not unheard of for universities to do this; the Universities of Warwick and Oxford have spoken out and criticised the proposal and the way negotiations are being handled.”

Ultimately, none of us want the boycott to go ahead, but we also won’t be turned against our lecturers. We’re really hopeful that the negotiations this Friday will bring the boycott to an end before it has had any impact upon students.”

The Students’ Union is urging students to “stand by your staff” and will this week be producing a website explaining the situation, as well as writing to the Vice Chancellor and encouraging students to do the same. The website, abermarkingboycott.wordpress.com, will be operated by SU officers and act as a hub of information on the boycott for students. It will launch on Thursday morning, the first day of the boycott. If any students need any advice relating to academic issues the Students’ Union Advice Centre will be operating its usual service throughout the boycott. Students should still continue to hand in all assessments, including coursework, as usual.