Proposed UCU marking boycott hangs in the balance as lecturers go to the ballot

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The UCU (University and College Union) have announced that a ballot will take place on Friday, Week 2, to decide whether or not the Union’s proposed marking boycott will go ahead. This is in reaction to the University and Colleges Association’s (UCEA) offer of a two percent pay increase during the latest series of negotiations between the UCU and UCEA.

The UCU has delayed the start of the boycott until Tuesday, Week 23, in order to allow for the ballot to take place following UCEA’s offer. This marking boycott is set to be the next step in the UCU’s attempts to improve the wages of university staff, which had seen a 13 percent real money decrease over the last five years, whilst many university vice-chancellors had simultaneously seen their own wages increase drastically just over the last year. The two percent wage increase that has been offered by UCEA is seen as a substantial figure, but nevertheless would still see a decrease in university staff wages by over 10 percent over those five years.

The marking boycott, which is currently suspended, is, to quote the UCU, “intended to be a comprehensive boycott of all marking, course work assignments, examinations and therefore includes all formal student work submitted for assessment.”

Previous industrial action – the last instalment to date being on Monday Week 5 of Lent term – saw UCU members take part in walk-outs, forcing the cancellation of lectures, seminars and meetings. Following those strikes, UCU member Julie Hearn heralded their success – “large picket lines and rallies, carnival atmosphere – despite the weather in some places – and strong support from students have featured in the many reports received from around the country.”

Following initial discussions between the UCU and UCEA, UCU Head of Bargaining Michael MacNeil stated, “since we last sat down with the employers to formally discuss pay there have been six strikes by university staff – three full day ones and three two hour stoppages – and we have announced plans for a marking boycott.  It is clear that students want a fair and speedy resolution to this dispute, and UCU is continuing to work hard to achieve this before our marking boycott begins.”

Prior to the offer being tabled by UCEA, many universities, including Lancaster, sent letters out to staff threatening that 100 percent of their pay would be docked were the member of staff to take part in the marking boycott.

On April 4th, Lancaster University Human Resources sent out a letter to all staff stating that “100 percent of an individual’s salary will be withheld on continuous basis” once the University is aware that the individual is taking part in the marking boycott. The letter also stated that “whilst we very much hope that this boycott does not take place we will not know this until much later in April and you will appreciate that we have to make contingency plans to seek to minimise the impact on our students.”

The University stated that a staff member’s “partial completion of their contract” would consequently mean that they are not entitled to their contractual pay. “It is also not intended in any way to suggest that we do not value all of our staff highly nor that we wish to damage the very good employee relations environment that exists here,” the letter goes on to say.

LUSU Councillor Becky Cook spoke to SCAN regarding the proposed marking boycott. Cook stated with regard to the University’s response to the proposed boycott: “I think it’s shocking that a University, which should be championing critical thinking about the world we live in, are imposing sanctions on those that stand up for what they believe in.

“But Fiona Aikin, University Secretary, has made it quite clear that they consider staff participating in industrial action to be in breach of their contract.”

In a motion passed by LUSU Council in Michaelmas term, LUSU promised to “support the industrial action taken by UCU, Unite and Unison” and “to continue to work with the trade unions present at Lancaster University to ensure a better collective experience for staff and students.”

Some students, particularly evident on Twitter, vented their opposition to the proposed boycott, feeling that this would harm students whose work was set to go unmarked. Cook responded to this, stating that “It’s just an issue of education, it’s about letting students know that staff are not involved in industrial action to disadvantage students, and not because they are greedy, but because this is their last option to push, not only for a living wage, but for a fairer and less pressurised working environment. Happier, less stressed staff can only be a positive for students.”

“As far as I know,” Cook said, “University Management are putting procedures in place so that students will still be able to graduate on time, or progress to the next level of their studies.”

VP (Education) Joe O’Neill stated on the LUSU website following the initial strike action that these are not all well paid lecturers suffering, “they’re the postgraduates who mark your papers, who answer your emails and who teach your seminars. They’re students too, just like you, and they’re being taken for a ride.” Cook followed this point further, saying that “I have seen a great deal of student support for staff over the course of the disputes, but the distinction between students and staff is a false dichotomy to some extent, for example, PhD students with a teaching element to their course are students and staff.”

Lancaster University’s letter in response to the boycott states that the University is not trying to increase the already clear tensions between universities and UCU affiliated staff. “It [the university’s approach] is not intended to exacerbate the situation but is part of a clear and consistent sector response to action that is viewed as being potentially damaging to our students and all of our reputations.” In contrast, LUSU’s motion supporting industrial action in Michaelmas term stated that “this Union believes short industrial action will cause relatively little disruption to the learning experience compared to the real long-term prospect of losing academics to industry or other universities willing to pay more.”


VP (Education) Joe O’Neill was unable for comment at the time of publication, however later added:

“I don’t want there to be a marking boycott, I want the university to encourage UCEA to offer a proper, revised pay-deal that works out fair and just for staff at our university. And just to be clear, when I say staff I mean some LUSU members too. There are postgraduates who teach – students who are teaching – who have absolutely abysmal working conditions, there are pay gaps based on gender, there are people who might not even make minimum wage when their work hours are added up. They are students, they are LUSU members and they deserve someone to stand by them too.

Nobody wants it to come to a marking boycott, nobody wants strikes, but when the university refuses to negotiate a sensible pay increase rather than a 13% cut in real terms then things are going to boil over.

LUSU saying they disagree with it, though, won’t stop it. It will happen either way unless universities put the money in this sector – HE is a sector awash with money – into what’s important to students: their education. 
LUSU saying it supports it or doesn’t isn’t really going to have a sway on whether it goes ahead – it was happening either way. Voting to say we back it is more likely to see it over quicker than protracting it out. It’s lose-lose for students, but this way we’re more likely to see a return to normality more quickly. And to paint this as students-versus-staff anyway is just massively glossing over the fact that postgraduates who the industrial action is championing too are also students and they have rights – you can’t just say undergrads are the only students that count because it doesn’t suit you when postgrads fight for their rights for a change. 

The only people who can stop this going ahead are university management, and they need to wake up to the reality that if they’re charging us £9000 a year to be here, they should be providing the service we paid for. Lecturers striking and withholding marks is not being done lightly, it’s not something anybody wants, but will happen unless UCEA see sense. Our anger should be being directed to a management that sets our fees to the maximum they can and then fails to invest in and deliver our education.”

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