By Waseem Mohamed
Members of the University and College Union (UCU) will stage a marking and assessment boycott at 44 UK universities, including Durham. The boycott, which will start on 23rd May, is part of the ongoing disputes regarding cuts to the Higher Education sector’s biggest pension scheme and long-standing issues related to pay and working conditions.
Durham UCU justified its decision to participate in the boycott in a statement yesterday, saying, “Prior to the announcement of the marking boycott we have tried less disruptive forms of industrial action – open letters, working to contract, short strikes, protests – without this resulting in significant progress in either the national disputes or on our local claim.
“The nature of industrial action is that it must be disruptive or threaten to be disruptive to be effective. We are currently in meaningful negotiations which may avoid this disruption, subject to further discussions and approval by the branch.”
Durham UCU indicated that there is still a possibility that the boycott could be called off before 23rd May.
The branch stressed that it hoped to avoid disruption through prompt resolution of the dispute locally and stated that its negotiators are “ready to meet as often as necessary to agree a deal” should the University management “urgently make an acceptable offer”. If a deal were put forward the Union says it would take around a week for internal discussion and a vote, meaning there is still a short window for the dispute to be resolved without any further disruption to students.
A previous version of the statement expressed concern about the urgency of negotiations to date, but this was later amended and Durham UCU noted that “the employer has asked that details of the negotiations are kept confidential for now”.
In recent meetings the Union’s local negotiators have put pressure on the University to show commitment to improving issues related to the “Four Fights” campaign, including requesting a “one-off payment of £2,500 or an increase in the spine point for every staff member at Durham” and for the use of 23-month contracts to cease.
Durham UCU’s statement comes amidst uncertainty over how the marking boycott will impact student grades this year. The UCU said last month that a marking boycott would “see staff refusing to complete any marking and assessment of students’ work, meaning students could be left without grades with some unable to graduate”.
Durham University states in its mitigation policy that “no student will be disadvantaged in assessments and examinations as a consequence of industrial action. All evaluations will be fair, consistent and transparent”, but it is not yet clear how it will limit the disruption caused by a potential marking boycott.
An email sent to Durham UCU members ahead of a general meeting on Wednesday 11th May explained that “While this timing [of the boycott] does not allow maximum disruption to be caused, it is still likely to be sufficient, especially given that Durham’s marks processing procedures have no leeway even in a normal year.”
Last week, UCU general secretary Jo Grady informed members nationwide that the Union “served the statutory minimum notice of two weeks to employers, informing them that the boycott will start on Monday 23 May.
“Employers now have two weeks to avoid the first UK-wide boycott of this kind in over a decade by finally making serious offers on the issues we are in dispute over.”
Grady also warned members that “Employers are very likely to threaten 100% pay deductions from members observing the boycott. We will be constantly monitoring the positions employers are taking and supporting branches to do everything possible to push back against this threat”. So far, Durham University has only deducted 25% of staff pay for those who did not upload learning material missed during previous strike action, as part of Action Short of Strike (ASOS).
In addition to the marking boycott, ten further days of industrial action have been planned for this term, although Durham UCU’s branch have decided to inform the national UCU “that we would prefer our ten days of strike action to be held in reserve for later in the dispute”.
Image Credit – Thomas Tomlinson