Student assessment systems could grind to a standstill in every new university as early as February after union leaders step up their campaign for better pay and conditions.
Lecturers' union Natfhe, whose members voted 76 per cent in favour of industrial action last week, said its campaign to withhold exam results will explode rapidly after Christmas. In half of all new universities, undergraduates will not be able to progress with their courses soon after the Christmas holidays, they predict. All assessment systems will be crippled by the middle of February.
"Our campaign to withhold marks will naturally escalate as more and more students wait for end-of-semester and end-of-term results and all the postgraduates complete MPhils and need PhD vivas," said Tom Wilson, head of Natfhe's universities department. To minimise damage, students' work will be marked but not processed, and lecturers will not attend exam board meetings.
Natfhe's warning comes days before six higher education unions, representing more than 100,000 members from cleaners to professors, joined forces for an escalating campaign of industrial action, beginning with a series of rallies and demonstrations next Tuesday. Lecturers represented by Natfhe, non-academic staff represented by Unison, technicians represented by the MSF, and manual workers from the T&G and the GMB all voted in favour of industrial action short of a strike last week. Mandates for full strike action were secured by Natfhe and the T&G.
The Association of University Teachers did not ballot for action following its unsuccessful campaign last year. It has promised to support the demonstrations, but general secretary David Triesman said it was not the time for "megaphone politics" and called for negotiation. The National Union of Students is in support of the action, sharing the unions' view on stress, pay and conditions.
Unions want employers to make a significant move to meet the 30 per cent pay shortfall identified by the Bett report into pay and conditions.
A letter this week from the six union general secretaries to Peter Humphreys, chief executive of the Universities' and Colleges' Emp-loyers Association, said: "Members are particularly angry that UCEA still refuses to return to serious negotiations, despite the announcement last week of an additional £1 billion higher education funding for England."
Mr Humphreys said he would report the unions' position to the UCEA board in a meeting on December 7.