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The marking boycott proposed by the UCU as the next step in their efforts to ensure adequate pay for University staff has been called off after the Union decided to settle following a pay offer from employers. UCU members took to the ballot box on Thursday, Week 2, to decide whether or not to take the two percent pay increase that was offered and call off the boycott, which would have been due to take place from Tuesday, Week 3. Of those who voted, 83.7 percent voted to accept the offer and call off the proposed industrial action.
This was expected to be the next step in a series of industrial action performed by the UCU this academic year before the offer was tabled. 52.6 percent of UCU members turned out to vote, with the Union’s Higher Education Committee meeting the next day to confirm the end of the pay dispute.
UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt stated on their website, “UCU members have made it overwhelmingly clear that they wish to accept the two percent pay offer and call off the proposed marking boycott. We shall be informing universities of their decision and that the marking boycott is off. My thanks go to UCU members for their support in this dispute.”
Acting Chair of the Lancaster branch of the UCU, Joe Thornberry, said that he was not surprised by the result of the ballot. “We were expecting that there would be a big majority in favour of accepting the pay offer,” Thornberry told SCAN. “It was a large ballot turnout as well – 53 percent is quite big for any union ballot.”
On the final settlement itself, Thornberry had mixed feelings. “You could argue that two percent is better than anyone else in the public sector has got. We would appear to be at least slightly better than the projected rise of inflation, so the decline in salaries has been altered,” Thornberry said. “However, effectively over the last four or five years academic salaries have fallen by 14 percent, and that’s going to be a running sore. We had the same problem with the school teachers in the 1970s and 1980s, and every year when it came to pay negotiations this was brought up… I think in 12 months’ time we could be looking at trying to regain some of that ground.”
UCU representative for the Linguistics and English Language department at Lancaster, Johann Unger stated his pleasure that the UCEA put forward a respectable offer.
“It is good that UCEA have agreed to negotiate around next year’s pay settlement early and have made what might be considered a reasonable offer for a single-year increase,” Unger said.
“It is higher than most other public sector workers are likely to get, and higher than some measures of inflation (e.g. CPI), though it still does not match the RPI inflation measure, which is arguably a better indicator of the rise in the cost of living,” Unger continued.
Unger was wary that this was only a small step made by the UCEA and does not counter all of the UCU’s grievances. “As it (more or less) matches inflation, it only arrests the massive real-terms decline in pay over the past 5 years, but does not even begin to reverse it,” Unger told SCAN. “And UCEA is still not willing to address the root cause of this industrial dispute, the paltry one perccent offer made for this year (2013-14) and their refusal to negotiate about other issues [such as gender pay inequality or the use of zero-hour contracts] until the unions accepted the offer. Once again, we have to see this in relation to the massive pay rises enjoyed by many Vice-Chancellors and other senior management, and the surplus of over £1 billion in the sector as a whole.”
While Thornberry acknowledged that progress was beginning to be made on the issue of the gender pay gap, like Unger he was frustrated at the lack of headway on the issue of zero hours contracts. “This is the major issue, particularly for many of our members who are trapped on these contracts,” Thornberry told SCAN. “Lancaster University uses them a lot, except they call them flexible hours contracts rather than zero hours contracts. That is something the local branch of UCU will be fighting for.”
Prior to the revised pay offer from UCEA (University and College’s Association), VP (Education) Joe O’Neill emphasised his hopes that a suitable offer would be made for the staff to be satisfied and the marking boycott therefore unnecessary. “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.”
The two percent pay rise goes some way to improve the situation for University staff, who have seen their wages decrease by 13 percent in real terms over the last five years. O’Neill stressed that it was important for students to stand with their staff, many of which are students as well themselves. “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.”
O’Neill made it clear that students should put pressure on University management rather than staff to ensure that industrial action does not further disrupt studies. He had stated University management “need to wake up to the reality that if they’re charging us £9,000 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.”
In preparation for the proposed marking boycott, the University took a series of measures to make sure that the effects to students’ grades were marginal.
These included the awarding of provisional marks to students whose assessments were affected by the marking boycott. These measures will now no longer go ahead. The resolution to the conflict comes after six months of industrial action by members of the UCU, beginning with a day of industrial action in Michaelmas Term.
“On balance, I don’t think we would have got this two percent without the industrial action and without the threat of the marking boycott,” Thornberry told SCAN. “I think within the Union itself saying that we really should have instituted the marking boycott an awful lot earlier in this process rather than leaving it until the very last minute.”