The National Health Service will soon be starved of thousands of newly qualified nurses because lecturers' are not processing undergraduate exam results as part of their campaign for better pay.
Lecturers' union Natfhe said that at least 100 exam board meetings have been cancelled across the new university sector as part of a joint union campaign, and hundreds more will fall victim to the industrial action over coming weeks.
Natfhe has predicted that the assessment system will be paralysed by the end of next month unless employers improve this year's 3 per cent pay offer. The four non-academic unions, representing staff from cleaners to technicians, are adding to the chaos with other forms of action.
Natfhe's renewed warnings came as the employers' representatives, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, appeared to concede ground, agreeing to return to the negotiating table for an "exploratory meeting" this week. The meeting was due to take place yesterday, after The THES went to press. The trade unions were hopeful of a result.
Tom Wilson, head of the universities department at Natfhe, said:"UCEA had said that the 3 per cent offer was their final offer, so a return to talks is a real improvement."
The unions feel that the government's announcement of an additional £330 million for pay over the next three years will leave employers with no option but to improve their offer, and they are determined not to halt their action until there is an improvement to the package.
"There will be no let up until further talks have resulted in a settlement we feel able to put to our members," said Mr Wilson. Natfhe had claimed a pay increase of at least 10 per cent, which would go some way to making up a 30 per cent pay shortfall identified by the Bett report.
Mr Wilson said that the industrial action could have a major impact on an NHS that is already struggling with a winter crisis.
"Several thousand nurses, which the NHS will be relying on to come into the system at the end of January, will not have their qualifications," Mr Wilson said. Although Natfhe members are informally giving students their exam results, the results are not being formally processed, leaving qualified nurses unable join the wards, he said.
He also predicted that assessment systems in all universities would soon be paralysed. "Several exam board meetings have been postponed in more than 20 institutions," he said. "More will follow depending on universities' exam timetables."
UCEA chief executive Peter Humphreys declined to comment in advance of Thursday's meeting.