Dads' army stands by to beat exam boycott

March 31, 2006

Universities deny that drafting in retired staff to mark papers will be detrimental to quality. Alan Thomson reports

Universities may seek to mobilise a "dads' army" of retired academics as part of their contingency plans to beat the lecturers' assessment boycott.

Employers, determined to prevent the boycott damaging students' education and even employment prospects, are expected to use every possible resource at their disposal to ensure that exams are set and marked.

The Times Higher has confirmed that contingency plans are being finalised by most universities. Students have warned that they might sue institutions if the boycott is allowed to damage their education and, in the most extreme scenario, prevent them graduating and getting a job.

Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, said: "It would be odd if universities did not look at all the options available, and it is certainly possible some could hire retired staff.

"I think students would want to know that their institution is doing everything possible."

Cambridge University has adopted a robust stance, to the extent that it is "guaranteeing" that exams, marking and degree ceremonies will go ahead as scheduled.

A spokesman said: "There is no question of bringing in substandard staff, but if we saw particular problems in particular subjects we could look at bringing in retired staff. But this is unlikely.

"Exams will be set by non-Association of University Teachers staff, and students will be examined in the normal way."

The university has temporarily adapted its procedures to allow exam lists to be posted as usual in mid-June but without details of degree classifications. The regulations allow for these to be finalised later if the need arises.

Cambridge stated that no student would graduate without a classification and that every graduand would know the class of his or her degree before the graduations scheduled for the end of June and start of July.

Many institutions, including Sheffield University, have or are in the process of finalising contingency plans.

Paul White, pro vice-chancellor, said: "We aim to minimise the impact of action on our students, and our team is looking at a range of solutions to address any issues or concerns that students have."

A spokeswoman for Birmingham University said: "The welfare and educational wellbeing of our students is paramount. Given that the action is directly designed to affect them, we are actively planning our responses."

A spokeswoman for Newcastle University said: "We are putting measures in place to minimise the impact of industrial action on students, but we are not in a position to give specific details."

Andy Pike, national officer for higher education at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "Any attempt to bring in scab labour to undermine industrial action will backfire.

"A lecturer who is specifically hired to undertake marking will not be party to the same degree of quality assurance and professional control."

Sally Hunt, AUT general secretary, said: "There is no need for universities to be spending unnecessary money when their staff want the dispute to end and to get back to work."

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