Universities that withhold 100 per cent pay from staff taking part in a marking boycott risk becoming “pariahs within the global academic community”, the University and College Union has said.
As an assessment boycott begins today at pre-92 universities over pensions, the UCU has written to the 69 higher education institutions where action will take place to warn them against docking wages.
Any university that deducts 100 per cent of pay throughout the industrial action would face an academic boycott, according to the letter sent by UCU’s head of bargaining Michael MacNeil.
The UCU’s full academic boycott would see the union ask its members and other academic staff to refuse to attend any event at a university, or to work as a visiting professor or researcher there. Staff would also be encouraged not to act as external examiners for the institution.
However, several other universities have also written to staff saying they reserve the right to withhold pay, and Imperial College London has warned it will take 25 per cent of salary from staff participating in the marking boycott, which UCU says will affect 1.2 million students across the sector.
In the letter, Mr MacNeil warns institutions that if they adopt a confrontational approach to pay docking, they will “only serve to exacerbate and prolong what is already a bitter dispute” and “cause long-lasting and deep-seated harm to industrial relations at your institution”.
The industrial action follows a ballot of UCU members at 69 universities, where a large number of staff pay into the Universities Superannuation Scheme, which is seeking to reduce the benefits it pays in the face of a deficit of at least £8 billion.
Some 87 per cent of voters backed action short of a strike, with a record 45 per cent of members taking part in the ballot.
Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said that docking 100 per cent of pay from staff who are continuing to perform the vast majority of their duties is “completely unethical and risks causing greater damage to students’ education”.
“Punitive pay docking could lead to lectures and seminars being cancelled as members refuse to work for free,” said Ms Hunt. “Any institution docking full pay and claiming it has students’ interests at heart is lying,” she added.
The union’s letter also asks universities for an update on their position regarding negotiations and sets out alternative plans to those offered by Universities UK, which has proposed the closure of the final salary scheme, with all active members moving to career average arrangements.
UUK has said it is “disappointed” that the UCU has moved to a marking boycott, pointing out that USS negotiations between the union and employers have not yet concluded.
Employers “are committed to continuing negotiations with UCU to seek a joint proposal for reform that offers an affordable, flexible, sustainable and attractive pension scheme, for both current and future members”, a UUK spokesman said.
Agreeing some sort of recovery plan to eliminate the USS deficit was “unavoidable”, as the fund had to comply with rules set by the Pensions Regulator.
UUK said it was “keen to hear the UCU’s alternative proposals for reform to address the very substantial deficit and risks within the USS scheme”.
“The vast majority of USS scheme members are committed to their students and have no wish to cause any harm with this ill-timed industrial action while negotiations continue,” the spokesman added.
“Universities take the risk of disruption to students arising from any potential industrial action very seriously, and would take all reasonable steps to mitigate impact on students,” he said, adding that institutions “would not be able to accept partial performance from staff”.