Sheffield concedes threat to exams

April 28, 2006

About a third of this summer's final-year exams may have to be cancelled at Sheffield University, it emerged this week, as the university became the first to concede that the industrial action over pay was having a serious early impact, writes Phil Baty.

Paul White, pro vice-chancellor at Sheffield, confirmed to The Times Higher this week that the university's central examinations office had received "approximately 500 examination papers out of 860 scheduled for this summer's exams" - less than 60 per cent - because of the boycott of the setting and marking of exam papers by the Association of University Teachers.

He said: "At this stage, this means we have received papers to cover exams for more than two thirds of our final-year students."

The university stressed that the number of exam papers submitted was "increasing on a daily basis" and that it was "continuing with plans to run all assessments as scheduled" because there was still time to put arrangements in place.

But even with an extended deadline for the submission of papers - April 21 - already passed, and with exams due to begin on May 22, the AUT predicted severe disruption at Sheffield without a quick settlement of the pay dispute.

Sally Hunt, AUT president, said: "We have said for months that a prolonged dispute will cause considerable disruption.

"What is happening here is being mirrored around the country, which is why we are trying to get the dispute resolved as swiftly as possible."

The problems at Sheffield appear to be the first clear indication that the AUT's tactic of refusing to set exams - while sister union Natfhe is simply refusing to mark them - is having an early impact ahead of the May and June exam period.

In an indication of the concern at Sheffield, Bob Boucher, the vice-chancellor, wrote to staff this week warning: "The formal deadline for the submission of examination papers has now passed, and, while we have received large numbers, others are still awaited, and we are very close to the point when other measures will need to be considered."

He made another appeal for boycotting staff to "reconsider their position as a matter of urgency, before their actions cause irreparable damage to students", and to hand over exams by noon on April 28.

There are 1,261 AUT members at Sheffield, according to the university, which is about 40 per cent of academic and related staff eligible to join the union.

A spokesman for Sheffield said: "Deadlines are set sufficiently early each year, so there is time even now to process papers in time for scheduled exams."

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