Union members begin scaled-back action over pensions and pay

The leadership of the University and College Union allowed individual branches to make the decision to organise marking boycotts – after it was unable to agree a nationwide position on industrial action this summer.

Marking boycotts have begun at several universities as some members of the University and College Union (UCU) take industrial action in disputes over pensions and pay.

But the marking boycotts will impact fewer universities than some in the union had first hoped, and some branches have privately disclosed that relatively few staff will take part. Strike plans have also been scaled back – and ultimately, very few universities may now be affected.

Last week, late on Friday, 20 May, the union announced to members that a May meeting of the Union’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) had failed to decide the next steps in the union’s disputes after recent strike ballots returned lower-than-previous results.

Although the members’ ballot in April meant strikes and marking boycotts could continue at fewer universities, a conference for UCU branch delegates later that month voted to pursue action at all 41 universities.

The union general secretary had, herself, called on members to pause strikes and action until 2023 to give the union time to regroup. In place of a decision, a compromise: the HEC decided to hand the decision back to individual branches, therefore avoiding forcing a nationwide strike.

“Unfortunately, the HEC was deadlocked, with no agreement on how to proceed,” Grady wrote to members. “It has therefore fallen to the higher education officers (HEC chair, two vice-chairs and the president) to use their delegated powers to consider and act on branches’ feedback.” Individual UCU branches will now choose whether or not to act on legal mandates to strike or boycott assessments.

The decision means UCU members at 21 universities will proceed alone, pursuing marking boycotts over cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), pay, or both. Continued Grady: “The officers have also agreed – in response to overwhelming feedback from branches – not to call the 10 days of strike action, except in branches that specifically request to take them.”

As of Monday, 21 May, the following 21 universities may experience marking boycotts:

1. Bournemouth University
2. Brighton, The University of
3. Dundee, The University of
4. Essex, The University of
5. Glasgow, The University of
6. Goldsmiths University, London
7. Heriot-Watt University
8. Institute of Development Studies (IDS)
9. Kingston University
10. Leeds, The University of
11. Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts
12. Newcastle University
13. Nottingham, The University of
14. Queen Mary, University of London
15. Royal College of Art
16. Sheffield, The University of
17. Stranmillis University College
18. Sussex, The University of
19. Ulster, University of
20. University of the Arts, London
21. Westminster, The University of

The UCU branch at Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL), expressed outrage at university management last week. It claims the university’s principal is “considering using external staff from Curio, an Australian Higher Education consultancy [Curio] to try to break our marking boycott and grade student essays”.

The branch tweeted: “Paying outside staff with no familiarity with the course content to mark essays would massively undermine academic standards and would devalue QMUL degrees.”

QMUL did not deny the plan is under consideration. In response to the union, a spokesperson said: “We are disappointed to be facing national industrial action once again at Queen Mary, although this affects only a very small number of our teaching programmes.

“Less than 2% of our staff have taken strike action so far. We have been clear from the outset that our first priority is to protect all our students’ education and experience in the areas affected, and to uphold academic quality and standards.

“We will continue to use, where required, a range of measures to mitigate any impacts from the continuing 5-year national UCU industrial action and to protect our students’ education.”

The current dispute appears, however, to have lost steam. UCU has already led members to take 13 days of strike action this academic year – but forgoing pay during a cost-of-living crisis appears a bridge too far for many. Marking boycotts could still have a significant impact on those universities affected.

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the University and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea), said: “If UCU does press ahead with a marking and assessment boycott, the minority of HE institutions being unfairly targeted are well prepared to minimise any disruption to their students.

“Feedback confirms high levels of branch uncertainty when it comes to participation in the boycott, and there are bound to be doubts among some UCU members. However, one thing is certain: the 44 HE institutions targeted have plans in place and remain fully focused on protecting students and mitigating any isolated disruption attempts to the student experience.”

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