Pay dispute could affect students as UCU threatens ‘marking boycott’

The University College Union’s (UCU) proposed ‘marking boycott’ is planned to go ahead, a move intending to resolve the on-going pay dispute between universities and their staff, which would have a negative impact on students.

Graduations are at risk if the boycott is to proceed, as the action threatens to leave students without the final marks they need to gain their degree. Additionally, it could leave second and third year students without their grades until the pay dispute comes to an end.

Last week UCU announced that it had given staff ‘the green light’ for the proposed marking boycott if universities failed to broker a deal over fair pay for its staff. As part of the protest, staff that are UCU members could refuse to mark essays, portfolios, dissertations and exam scripts for all undergraduates and postgraduates at British universities.

Dan Ashley from UCU stated: “The pay dispute is a national one. We would urge all Cardiff students to lobby the vice-chancellor to put pressure on the UCEA [University and Colleges Employers Association], who do the negotiating on behalf of universities, to come back to the negotiating table to seriously talk about pay and get the dispute resolved before the marking boycott starts in two months’ time.”

As dissertation deadlines edge closer, it is unclear how students would be able to graduate or progress with their degrees if the boycott were sanctioned. This boycott would also affect students waiting to receive their grades in order to apply for placements, jobs and years abroad.

Cardiff University Students’ Union have distanced themselves from the plans, releasing a statement saying: “Cardiff Students’ Union recognises the right to industrial action and has previously supported UCU’s exercise of that right… for industrial action to be effective, it has to have impact. Unfortunately, that impact is often felt by the wrong people and in this case will be felt primarily by students.”

“Cardiff Students’ Union exists to represent students at Cardiff University and works to improve their student experience. The prospect of Cardiff University students not receiving their grades for assessed work and therefore potentially not being able to graduate means that we cannot and do not support this action.”

Third year History and Politics student, Steve Plowman, expressed his concern over the upcoming strikes: “It’s obviously quite disconcerting that we may not graduate this summer.  We are plaintively stuck between a rock and a hard place, between the UCU and the university, as the strikes show no sign of abating. It could potentially disrupt our job applications and could ruin our summer.”

The last marking boycott took place in 2006, once again over pay issues. University staff engaged in the ‘mark and park’ boycott method, marking the essays yet refusing to release them to the general public until pay disputes were settled.

The latest action follows the strikes of October and December last year, where dispute escalated over universities’ failure to better their offer of a 1% increase in wages. The UCU suggested that this was “an insult too far.”

University staff have endured a 13% reduction of pay since 2009, this statistic made all the more appalling as Vice Chancellors in the Russell Group Universities have received an average salary increase of 8.1% in the last year, the average pay-packet equating to £314,000.

The UCU have stated that a marking boycott could still be averted if the employers of the UCEA agree to ‘serious’ negotiations, having until now refused to engage in any dialogue regarding pay.

The UCEA released a statement this week: “HE [higher education] institutions will certainly be disappointed that the UCU is still threatening a marking boycott, as this is action that is once again aimed directly at students’ education.”

Sally Hunt, the General Secretary of the UCU refuted this ardently, suggesting that: “Throughout the dispute we have been calling on the employers to minimise disruption to students and sit down and talk to us seriously about pay. They have refused. It is their obstinacy that has forced our hand with the marking boycott.”

There have been six strikes since October 2013, causing disruption to scheduled classes for both postgrad and undergrad students. Students are becoming increasingly frustrated as the bickering between unions and universities continues to affect their education.

Vice Chancellors at Russell Group universities have enjoyed an average pay rise of 5.1% last year, with an average salary of £235,000 – the UK Prime Minister earns £142,000 in comparison.  As a rebuff to proposed strikes, Vice Chancellors threatened to dock a days full pay for the two hour demonstrations that took place on the 23rd of January 2014.

A recent article in the Financial Times suggested that there had been a steady decline in the pay of further education lecturers and teachers since 1975. It also states that almost one in ten of University lecturers made up the top 5% of earners the same year.

It has also been revealed that university staff are being paid less than their contemporaries in other English speaking countries such as Australia, Canada and the USA. Only New Zealand’s academics earn less than those of the UK.  Yet the UK’s higher education system is ranked second out of the 50 countries for the results that they produce.

Thomas Bamford