There is no such thing as victimless industrial action - at least not of the successful variety. And, in higher education, the victims are almost bound to be the students. Academics who strike or work to rule may disrupt research projects or industrial collaboration, but the potential for lasting impact will always concern the students. That is undoubtedly the case in the current pay dispute, where the unions even seem to have decided which students to target ("Exam boycott will hit public services", February 24). Most people who work in universities and colleges (not just academics) are notoriously underpaid. Understandably, activists see this as a crunch year because of the extra income from top-up fees, so a messy dispute was always a strong possibility, especially in the run-up to a union merger.
But none of this means that members of the Association of University Teachers will be happy to take the hard line on an assessment boycott that their leaders are recommending. Academics have a different relationship with their students from that of train drivers with their passengers or civil servants with the public. They are naturally reluctant to cause more disruption than necessary at an already stressful time, particularly if the action might blight career opportunities.
The AUT plan - to refuse even to set examinations, let alone invigilate or mark them - represents the hardest line possible. Rescheduling will be extremely difficult in universities relying on external venues and far from easy even in those with their own facilities. The Natfhe option - of going ahead with the assessment process but withholding the results pending a settlement - at least demonstrates that consideration has been given to the interests of the innocent victims of the dispute. There will be little solidarity with campus workers among students otherwise.
Two years ago, the AUT had similar plans, but their impact was not fully tested and the dispute was settled. Many universities were confident that they would find staff to set and invigilate exams. This time, however, negotiations have not even begun and, when they do, reaching a settlement will be anything but straightforward. Employers can demonstrate that the pay bill has increased substantially since the Framework Agreement, that many academics are not badly paid and that the funding does not exist to meet the unions' claim. The unions can show that large numbers of their members, for example in middle-ranking jobs, are yet to benefit significantly. They will not be prepared to take a more modest general increase to pay for growth in senior positions. In short, the route to an agreement is not obvious and may well be slow. If there has to be an assessment boycott along the way, the Natfhe version is the only responsible course of action.