66% of Durham students oppose marking boycott

By Laetitia Eichinger, Joe Rossiter, and

Just 28% of students support Durham’s branch of the University and Colleges Union (DUCU) in its upcoming marking boycott, according to the results of a survey carried out by Durham Polling this week.

DUCU is set to commence a marking and assessment boycott on 23rd May unless members vote in favour of a package of proposals put forward by the University last week in the hope of avoiding industrial action. The proposed deal includes a joint statement on pensions cuts, one-time payouts to every staff member and commitments to review several contentious workplace practices.

Members of DUCU have been participating in a vote on whether to accept the proposal this week, the outcome of which is set to be announced later today.

The threat of a marking boycott marks an escalation in the Union’s response to disputes over pension cuts and longstanding issues relating to pay and working conditions. Of the students surveyed, 64% stated that they believe that DUCU’s reasons for strike action are valid.

Second and third-year students were significantly more likely to oppose the marking boycott than first-years and 66% of all respondents said that they had previously supported UCU industrial action. 266 students participated in the survey which was carried out this week between 16th and 19th May, and the results represent a stratified sample based on student demographics.

Both DUCU and the University have responded mounting student pressure for the marking boycott to be avoided.

In an email to students yesterday, Alan Houston, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education), said that the proposed deal represents a “significant development” between the parties in “working together to try to reach a resolution”. 

He expressed “hope” that DUCU members will “recognise the significant steps all parties have taken to move forward and accept this offer to avoid industrial action”.

Houston also noted the University’s “detailed plans” to “minimise the impact on individual students”, which will be published if and when the marking boycott is confirmed to be going ahead.

This came after DUCU held a Q&A event held at the SU on Wednesday. President of DUCU, Sol Gamsu told Palatinate, “There has been a welcome change in tone and attitude by management locally over the last few weeks. We have been working constructively together to try and seek a local, negotiated set of joint statements and commitments for the ‘Four Fights’ (workload, casualisation, pay and equalities) and on pensions.

“It should never have got to this point. The previous intransigence and willingness to support pension cuts has led to a very disrupted year for students.”

Gamsu previously told Palatinate about his personal motivations for partaking in industrial action: “I stand to lose about £9-10k from my pension. I’m going to go from a guaranteed defined benefit pension of about £23k to something closer to £12k.” 

Siobhán McGrath, DUCU Equalities Officer, also emphasised that DUCU members have “suffered” throughout the dispute, describing how she lost approximately £2000 of salary after partaking in 13 previous strike days.

Several respondents of the Durham Polling survey echoed the hope that the threat of the marking boycott will bring the University to the negotiating table, whilst others expressed concern about the potential impact on students.

One said: “[DUCU] are justified in taking increased action – but as a finalist who has suffered from [disruption due to the pandemic] and numerous strikes, my education has been impacted, and now even my graduation is in question. I just hope the University starts respecting their staff.”

Another added: “None of the previous strike action has caused the University to come to the table. I hope the disruption posed by this will be enough to bring them to discussions.”

Durham SU has previously confirmed that they do not support the proposed marking boycott, stating that “the potential disruption to our students is too great”, despite understanding the need for renewed industrial action. The Students’ Union has welcomed the proposals, saying “Students don’t want or deserve further disruption to their studies.

“We hope that future negotiation continues to make academic work an attractive career, without the need for further industrial action. We urge UCU members to consider the proposals carefully and to make sure they cast their vote.”

When asked specifically about declining student support for striking staff amidst the marking boycott threat during the Q&A event, Gamsu said that it is “not as easy as saying students are now hostile”, citing an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor organised by the South Student Protest group.

The open letter calls for University management to “negotiate with the UCU” to avoid the marking boycott, to “issue partial refunds for teaching time missed due to strike action”, and to “set up a framework to mitigate future industrial action with financial compensation for students”. 

More than 1100 students have signed the letter which threatens protests during open days and fee strikes for the 2022/23 academic year if these demands are not met.

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the survey referenced was self-selecting.

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