The Association of University Teachers is set to plunge universities into chaos by instructing members not to set exams as part of its increasingly bitter dispute with employers over pay.
The boycott, designed to hit all students, exposes a tactical split between the AUT and its sister union Natfhe, which will continue to set and invigilate exams. It will rely instead on withholding marks to exert pressure on universities.
Student leaders and employers have condemned the AUT's planned action, which they say will scupper exams at all levels, including degree finals.
They say that if students are prevented from sitting final exams, they will be unable to graduate and could miss out on jobs.
The AUT-Natfhe industrial action, the first since they agreed plans to merge, begins next Tuesday with a one-day strike. The examinations and assessment boycott will start the following day. The unions want pay rises for members of up to 23 per cent over the next three years.
Kat Fletcher, president of the National Union of Students, said that she had raised students' concerns officially with the AUT. "Not setting exams will mean that restoring a normal service to students will take longer once the dispute is settled," she said.
Both the AUT and the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association this week pleaded for a return to the negotiating table. The AUT has taken out a full-page advertisement in this week's Times Higher warning employers that time is running out.
Ucea has written to the AUT and Natfhe proposing a compromise that brings forward the first formal pay negotiations to March 28. Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of Ucea, said: "Students will be the victims of this hardline tactic by the AUT."
Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, said: "When I was a young lecturer I would not have wanted to take this action. I suspect that most AUT members feel the same."
Geoffrey Copland, chair of Ucea and vice-chancellor of Westminster University, said: "The AUT's boycott will leave many students in a very difficult position as they will not be qualified for jobs."
The AUT finalised its battle plan for industrial action last week. The guidance states that the boycott is "intended to be comprehensive".
It continues: "Members should not: set examinations, invigilate examinations, mark papers, essays, projects, provide informal guidance to students with regard to their mark, grade or assessed progress (or) process marks."
Sally Hunt, AUT general secretary, said: "The industrial action, which now looks inevitable, will affect all students at all UK universities. The longer the dispute lasts, the more students will feel its impact. We have maintained since the autumn that any action would be a desperate last resort if the employers refused to make us an acceptable pay offer. To date they have not made us any offer."
Roger Kline, head of Natfhe's universities department, said: "No one has suggested we should change what we have traditionally done. Natfhe will be instructing members to set exams but withhold marks as well as working to contract."