Strike day could lead to exam boycott

May 28, 1999

Amid familiar scenes of placards, megaphones and chanting students, about 100 or so academics and their supporters turned out for a lunchtime rally at Leeds University on Tuesday.

The morning picket had been "a bit disappointing", said one member of the Association of University Teachers. Perhaps the cold persuaded most academics to stay at home. Or perhaps it was the predictable mix of corny student politics ("Blair out! Blair out! Blair out!"), the socialist workers, the Marxists, the mystified local reporters, and the unpleasant drunk telling everyone loudly to "F off the lot of yer".

Less than two hours later, 4,000 students were due to take exams. But AUT activists were keen to stress that the stoppage was not intended to disrupt them.

"We have had agonising discussions here about damaging students and we are not trying to prevent the exams happening," said former AUT president Harry Lewis, a philosopher. "We want this to be a credible gesture but what we don't want to do is prevent students from graduating."

Support from student and other campus unions was vital, he said. "The last thing we want to do is fall out with them."

Helen Aspinall, of Leeds students' union, confirmed staunch backing for the teachers. She said: "There have been no extra resources for higher education since the introduction of tuition fees. Instead it has been cut, cut, cut. This government's position is unacceptable and that is why we have seen children as well as students demonstrating against education policies."

Ms Aspinall could not resist a dig at the students' chief bugbear, Jack Straw, who is due to receive an honorary degree from Leeds over the summer.

"What's he got to do with anything?" was how one irri-tated bystander put it.

David Salinger, Leeds AUT president, stressed that on its own, the one-day stoppage was not expected to achieve anything.

He said: "I do not welcome this situation. But this is part of a wider strategy and if we don't get anywhere there will be further action, possibly including exam boycotts next semester."

Dr Salinger warned that since academics had seen their pay fall behind by up to 40 per cent, universities would be unable to attract enough staff over the coming decade.

"Today we are going to start addressing that, but it will take more than one day," he said.

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