Since the tripling of tuition fees, students are likely to be even less accepting of industrial action that might disrupt their progress
In 2006, when university lecturers took part in a marking boycott in protest against the employers’ pay offer, I was torn about whether to join it.
At the time, I was both a senior lecturer in microbiology at a university in the North of England and an executive MBA student, so I was well aware that the action taken by my colleagues could prevent me graduating. On the other hand, I recognised that my colleagues were doing a hard job and that pay comparability with other professions was slipping. In the end, after much soul-searching, I did take part in the boycott to support my colleagues. But I did feel uncomfortable, and with hindsight, I would have made a different decision.
At the end of 2006, Times Higher Education reported that: “The deadlock with vice-chancellors…last[ed] for six months. In summer, just as it looked as if the action might prevent students from graduating, a deal was brokered: employers agreed to a 13.1 per cent rise over three years – 0.5 per cent up on their original offer. But at what cost? The disenchantment of the union’s rank-and-file members; the damage inflicted on academic-administrator relations; and the loss of trust between universities and their new fee-paying student customers perhaps.”
Now, in 2014, a marking boycott is on the cards once again. After the offer of a 1 per cent pay rise, academics belonging to the University and College Union will refuse to mark essays or exams from 28 April unless an improved pay deal is agreed.
I have been following this from the other side of the world. I now work in the Learning and Teaching Unit at UNSW Australia.
I left the UK in 2011 not having had a pay increase since 2009 because my university had adopted a policy of wage restraint. I wanted to work in a country that was experiencing an economic boom, as opposed to one in bank bailout mode that appeared to be going broke. I was attracted by the promise of a resource-rich learning and teaching environment – and Australia has lived up to my expectations. The higher salaries here are a significant bonus.
So what do I think of the prospect of a marking boycott today? Since the tripling of university tuition fees in England, students are likely to be even less accepting of or sympathetic towards industrial action involving a marking boycott that might disrupt their academic progress.
Equally, they may look at the hike in their fees and wonder why things such as reasonable salary increases cannot be funded.
I can still see both sides of the argument. In my experience, however, nobody wants to intentionally harm or put at risk an individual’s academic progress or the quality of the student learning and teaching experience. So, despite the financial pressures many academics face, I do not believe that many staff will select the “nuclear option” and withdraw their labour to prevent students from graduating this time around. In a recent letter to THE, two academics described the move as “a divisive measure that goes against every principle of unity”.
But perhaps it is time to consider an independent pay review body for academic salaries, terms and conditions. In England and Wales, the education sector already has the School Teachers’ Review Body, which looks into pay, professional duties and working time of school teachers and reports to the secretary of state. MPs have the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The key advantage of an independent pay review body is impartiality and the fact that decisions are based on evidence.
A marking boycott remains the ultimate sanction, and it is not the answer. Taking part in such action goes against the grain of academic culture; for most lecturers, it is simply not in their DNA.