Staff vote in favour of marking and exam boycott

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Staff at 69 universities, including Lancaster, have overwhelmingly backed industrial action over radical reforms to university staff pensions. It was confirmed on Monday Week 3 that the ballot regarding changes to staff pensions, which could see university staff lose thousands of pounds, saw a response favouring staff protest through a marking and exam boycott.

The UCU (University and College’s Union) ballot revealed that 78% of members who responded voted in favour of strike action. An even greater majority, 87%, voted in favour of action short of a strike, which would most likely include a marking and exam boycott.

The ballot took place from Wednesday Intro Week to Monday Week 3, gaining the opinions of university staff, including lecturers, but also teaching postgraduate students. On Wednesday Week 3, UCU representatives spoke to representatives from the employers, Universities UK, who have chosen to alter pensions plans.

According to the Union, the vote “would most likely lead to a marking boycott and a refusal to set exams,” although no action can be confirmed until the end of the week. At the time of publication the outcome of the talks was not known.

UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt has proclaimed that the Union’s members have made their opinions on the matter clear for Universities UK. “UCU members at universities across the UK have made it quite clear today that they reject the radical changes being proposed for their pensions. We will go into talks on Wednesday hopeful that we can resolve the current impasse.”

“However, we will go into that meeting with a serious mandate from members that they need to see real improvements. If the employers do not address our concerns then we will meet on Friday to determine what forms of disruptive action we take and when they would start.”

This action would stop students being set coursework or receiving formal marks and feedback, as well as halting exams. When a marking boycott was announced in Easter Term last year, this saw anger from students on social-media that their degrees and hard work would be threatened by this action.

Although deriving from the same union, UCU, there is different reasoning behind this call for industrial action. The reasoning behind Monday’s call for a marking boycott is due to complicated changes to the pension schemes of staff in pre-1994 universities. According to the UCU, Universities UK want to reduce the coverage of the defined benefit element of the scheme and introduce a riskier defined contribution pension scheme.

Industrial action which took place in the last university year were caused by disputes over staff pay. University staff pay had fallen by 15 per cent in real terms over the previous five years, but the proposed marking and exam boycott in May was cancelled after Union members chose to accept a two per cent pay increase from their employers. The UCU, however, feels that this merely eased the disputes momentarily and that there are still concerns over staff pay in the sector.

The new pension changes would involve leaving behind the traditional Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) which had been in place within these 69 older universities. It was recently revealed that USS scheme had developed a deficit, thus causing the scheme to be altered drastically.

Modelling done by First Actuarial for the UCU has shown that academics could be thousands of pounds worse off if the changes did go through. The changes Universities UK have proposed would see an end to the final salary element of the scheme for all members, introducing an earnings cap at £40,000 above which benefits will not apply, and expect members to have to pay more in the future.

Regarding the pensions changes Hunt commented on the UCU website: “Staff see their pensions as deferred pay and are understandably angry at the impact these proposals would have. We are making it very clear in this ballot that if members back industrial action, and there is no negotiated solution, we will be looking to quickly move to an assessment and exam boycott.”

“We do not accept the way the scheme’s deficit is being valued or share the overly cautious and pessimistic view, which has prompted plans for deep cuts to pension provision. We want a solution that protects the pensions of staff and ensures the scheme remains attractive to new members of the profession.”

The ballot saw a 45 per cent turnout, which was the highest in a national higher education ballot since UCU was formed in 2006.

If the employers continue with the proposed pension changes after discussions in Week 3 then the UCU will meet on Friday to decide what industrial action will take place and when.

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