Threat to seize pay over exam boycott

February 3, 2006

University personnel chiefs are planning to withhold the salary of staff who take part in industrial action over pay, The Times Higher has learnt.

Postings to the private Universities Personnel Association's (UPA) electronic forum reveal plans to take staff "off payroll" and to stop payment for at least "several weeks" if they participate in a planned boycott of student assessments. This will apply even if union members come to work as normal and carry out other duties.

The hard line is being championed by the heads of human resources at York and Stirling universities. Their postings urge vice-chancellors to unite to weaken the resolve of union members currently voting on pay action.

The postings, leaked to the Association of University Teachers, drew an angry response from the AUT and Natfhe, whose ballot of their combined 70,000 university members closes on February 16.

If endorsed by ballot, the unions plan to hold a one-day strike in March, followed by an indefinite assessment boycott in support of a claim for a 20 per cent pay rise over three years.

Natfhe said its special pay conference later this month was likely to endorse plans to escalate the dispute to "all-out national action" if universities tried to dock pay.

Sally Hunt, AUT general secretary, said: "Universities' rhetoric speaks of the great value they place on staff and students. This shows the reality is very different."

In a posting to the UPA forum on January 12, Ged Murray, director of personnel at York University, said: "If higher education institutions made it clear from the outset that... anybody who refused to set exam questions, mark scripts etc would be taken off payroll... it would probably have a marked impact on the vote."

He said that if universities let the unions "cause damage" without consequences, "we will be simply encouraging them to hit us whenever the fancy takes them".

His plan was welcomed by his Stirling counterpart, Martin McCrindle, who referred to recent legal guidance outlining how employers could withhold pay.

Mr Murray told The Times Higher that while he supported the right to take action, any move that damaged an organisation's "fundamental activity" would be normally defined as a strike and union members should not expect to be paid.

John Boam, a member of UPA's executive, said there was no consensus on the proposal, and that implementation would be left up to individual universities.

The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association declined to comment on the discussions, saying only that it supported "dialogue not dispute and disruption".

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