University exams and assessments face further disruption from the UK’s higher education pensions dispute, as external examiners are urged to resign their positions at affected institutions.
The University and College Union has appealed to academics who hold external examiner positions at the 65 institutions affected by ongoing strike action to resign and not to accept any new posts until the row is resolved.
Widespread resignations could cause significant difficulties for universities’ assessment processes because external examiners have a role in the setting of questions, moderation of results and quality control of marking procedures.
The move comes as university staff prepare to return to work on 19 March after 14 days of strike action that spanned four weeks.
Further strikes are planned to coincide with universities’ exam and assessment period, with the exact dates to be announced shortly.
The dispute focuses on Universities UK’s proposal to scrap the element of the Universities Superannuation Scheme that guarantees members a certain level of income in retirement. UUK says that the change is needed in order to close a deficit of £6.1 billion in the scheme, but UCU says that the average lecturer would be left £10,000 worse off annually in retirement.
Meanwhile, a crowdfunding campaign led by academics that aims to seek specialist legal advice on the management of the USS and the estimation of the deficit achieved its target in a matter of hours.
The target of £30,000 was exceeded on 15 March and, by the morning of 16 March, the amount pledged had stretched to in excess of £42,000.
This comes after a deal struck between UUK and UCU negotiators, which would have protected defined benefits, albeit at a lower rate, was rejected by union members.
Individual vice-chancellors have continued to push for a settlement to the dispute, with Stephen Toope, head of the University of Cambridge, pushing for a more generous settlement and pledging not to deduct pay from staff taking action short of a strike.
Meanwhile, students have occupied offices at campuses throughout the country in support of the ongoing industrial action.
Sally Hunt, UCU’s general secretary, said that the resignation of external examiners would increase the pressure on UUK.
“External examiners ensure the rigorous quality standards in our universities, which must be upheld,” she said. “No student or university will want the quality of their degree called into question, so we advise universities’ representatives to get back round the table with us as soon as possible to get this dispute resolved.”