Not marking?

Experts foresee tough reaction from universities to UCU’s ‘ultimate sanction’. Jack Grove reports

February 20, 2014

Academics taking part in next term’s planned marking boycott could lose thousands of pounds in pay as universities take a tougher line on deductions than they did over similar action in 2006, a legal expert has warned.

From 28 April, University and College Union members will refuse to mark essays and exams and will not attend exam board meetings unless an improved pay deal is agreed, the union announced on 18 February.

The action, described as the UCU’s “ultimate sanction”, threatens to prevent students from graduating if final-year exam papers go unmarked – a scenario that the UCU believes will force the Universities and Colleges Employers Association to improve this year’s offer of a 1 per cent pay rise.

If no deal is reached in the next two months, it will be the first time since 2006 that academics have taken part in a marking boycott.

But institutions are now likely to take a much harder stance on deductions for “partial performance”, said solicitor Chris Mordue, head of the industrial relations team at Pinsent Masons, who advises universities on employment issues.

“One of the reasons why the marking boycott in 2006 lasted as long as it did is that most institutions did not implement deductions,” said Mr Mordue, who added that only a minority did so while many universities deferred a decision.

“There is a recognition that the response in 2006 did nothing to deter people from taking part in the boycott,” he continued.

Institutions have yet to decide the level of deductions, but Mr Mordue expected them to “deduct 30 to 40 per cent, then escalate…so academics cannot participate in the boycott with impunity”.

“There is a far greater appetite on behalf of institutions to impose deductions,” he went on, adding that deductions would continue throughout the summer if the dispute is not resolved by then.

Gregor Gall, professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford, also believed that employers would take a harder line than they did eight years ago.

“It could be more bloody than 2006, but this will ultimately depend on whether they are steadfast enough to collectively see through what the Ucea line will be on this,” Professor Gall said.

However, employers will be under more pressure to find a settlement given that most undergraduates are paying tuition fees of £9,000 a year compared with the £1,100 paid by the majority of students in 2006, Professor Gall said.

“The key period will be ramping up the political pressure, aided by squeals from the parents and students – who are now all the more customer-conscious with the rise in fees and the associated debt – before 28 April,” he said.

But Professor Gall warned that “things will get messy after the boycott goes live” as deductions kick in.

However, many UCU branches believe that support for the marking boycott will hold despite the threat of deductions of up to 100 per cent.

Mike Larkin, president of the UCU branch at Queen’s University Belfast, said that the recent decision to deduct a full day’s pay for those taking part in a two-hour strike had strengthened staff resolve.

“This has inflamed the situation to the point that staff are now very angry, and action escalating to non-marking of students’ work is going to be more effective regardless of management threats on pay deductions,” Professor Larkin said.

The boycott follows six days of strike action, which included three two-hour stoppages, since October, although Ucea has claimed that these walkouts caused only minimal disruptions to university teaching.

With no sign of an improved deal, the UCU had no option but to escalate the dispute, said John Kelly, professor of industrial relations at Birkbeck, University of London.

If UCU had accepted the current deal, “the more intransigent employers, who appear currently to dominate Ucea, will simply repeat the behaviour that has already worked for them in 2013‑14; offer another pay cut, negotiate in bad faith, face down industrial action and then simply impose a settlement and declare negotiations over”, Professor Kelly said.

“No union can stand by and watch what amounts to the de facto destruction of collective bargaining; consequently, further sanctions have to be imposed.”

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