Graduations at risk as UK marking boycott planned from 23 May

Academics at 44 institutions to refuse to mark work or set exams in midst of busy summer assessment period, in ongoing row over pay and pensions

May 6, 2022
Source: Simon Baker

Union members at some of the UK’s biggest universities will start a marking boycott on 23 May, potentially leaving students unable to graduate.

Academics at 44 institutions will stop marking work, returning marks and setting or sitting exams and coursework in the midst of the busy summer assessment season.

Among the institutions affected are Durham, Exeter, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham and Sheffield universities as well as King’s College London.

It is the latest salvo in the University and College Union’s long-running rows with employers over pay, pensions and working conditions.

After giving the mandatory 14 days’ notice on 6 May, general secretary Jo Grady said vice-chancellors “now have two weeks to avoid the first UK-wide boycott of this kind in over a decade”.

In an email to members, Dr Grady warned that employers would likely threaten those taking part in the boycott with 100 per cent pay deductions and promised to “do everything possible to push back against this threat”.

The union is also preparing to take a further 10 days of strike action, although the timetable for this will not be decided until the union’s higher education committee meets on 12 May.

All the branches participating in the marking boycott are demanding action on pay, workloads, casualisation and equality, while 26 branches are also calling for a reversal of cuts to pensions provided by the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

The declining number of branches that achieved a mandate to continue industrial action – one in four of all those polled – led some within the union to advocate a change in tactics, but delegates at the sector conferences on pay and pensions voted in April in continue with action this academic year.

Dr Grady said no member was taking part lightly given that they “choose to work in universities because they love working with and supporting students”.

But, she said, staff have been “pushed to breaking point” and the marking boycott was a “last resort for staff who feel like they have no other choice”.

Meanwhile, ahead of the third and final scheduled meeting on the 2022-23 pay award on 5 May, the University and Colleges Employers Association marginally increased its offer so that most staff would get a 2.9 per cent pay rise, increasing to 7.5 per cent for the lowest-paid.

This is still well short of the higher education unions’ demand of a pay rise of 2 per cent above retail price index inflation, which is predicted to surpass 10 per cent this summer.

In a letter outlining the latest offer, Raj Jethwa, Ucea’s chief executive, said that virtually all sectors were finding it impossible to get close to inflation at this time” and that he believed the offer was “comparable to very many others in the economy”.

Reacting to the announcement of the marking boycott, Mr Jethwa said: “There is deep regret about any student disruption, regardless of the level, and higher education institutions remain fully focused on protecting students and mitigating all attempts at disruption as best they can.

“Of course, it is also extremely disappointing that UCU is encouraging this small proportion of its members at isolated [institutions] – mostly in isolated subject areas – to take industrial action which targets those students who have already endured so many recent disruptions.”

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Very disingenuous quote from Raj Jethwa. That only way one can make sense of the suggestion that the "union" is encouraging its "members" to do some, would be to regard the union and its members as seperable entities. The only way this makes sense is if by "UCU" Jethwa mean the union leadership. Yet the union leadership advised against this action, and the membership, via the unions democratic mechanisms, chose to ignore the advice of the leadership. Thus its more like the members encouraging the union, than vice versa.
Good point Ian, but the UCU is also doing a lot of encouraging. One reason I left the union last year is its method of balloting: one heavily-promoted 'Yes' case, actually attached to the ballot paper. It's backed up by hectoring messages from the President and NEC and brainless clenched fist posters. No balanced pros and cons offered. I'm surprised the Electoral Services agency is willing to go along with this. It's not how academics assess arguments, and it's wrong for a professional union. Maybe this is why turnouts are dropping.

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