Editorial: Missing the mark?

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The announcement from the University and Colleges Union (UCU) of a fresh round of strikes this February won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s been keeping an ear to the ground for the slow rumblings-on of the higher education sector’s latest industrial dispute.

Somewhat less expected, is the Union’s threat of a marking and assessment boycott.

Should university employer bodies fail to meet the UCU’s demands regarding pensions, pay and working conditions, students could see their lecturers refuse to mark formatives, summatives, dissertations and even exams, in the most extreme scenario signalling potential delays to graduations.

The explicit wheeling out of the headline-grabbing phrase “marking boycott” in last week’s UCU memo was a calculated and provocative move, designed to rile students and by extension, decision-makers in universities’ higher echelons.

The threat marks an escalation in a dispute over cuts to the University Superannuation Scheme, the sector’s main pension provider and in a separate long-standing campaign against systemic issues within the higher education sector, including the use of unstable casual contracts and below-inflation pay increases.

With a deadline for final pension proposals approaching in February, Union leaders are engaged in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to clarify minds ahead of negotiations that could represent the final opportunity to defend the future economic welfare of their members.

Frustrated staff aiming for university wallets have little choice but to strike out at students

For those not afflicted by the notoriously short-term collective student memory, the UCU’s latest move may ring some loud bells, after all the tactic was deployed in both 2006 and again in 2014.

Eight years ago, staff were once again engaged in a dispute over USS cuts and pay issues, when the Union ushered in a boycott as an “ultimate sanction” following numerous failed negotiations with employers. A mere 11 days before lecturers were due to set down their red pens, the action was called off following a new pay offer.

A similar pattern played out in 2006, with staff and employers reaching a new pay agreement shortly before the start of exam season at most universities.

The tactic was controversial on both occasions. In 2014 it divided student bodies, with the National Union of Students backing staff, whilst Durham Students’ Union voted to condemn the boycott on the grounds that it was unnecessarily harmful to students.

Although it’s too early to fully judge, it seems likely that the majority of Durham’s students will fall into the latter camp this time around too. Finalists, already quick to take to Twitter to decry three years of disrupted learning due to the killer double-whammy of lockdowns and strikes, are unlikely to warm to a manoeuvre that targets them even more directly than staff absences for strike action.

The drawn-out game of chicken that the UCU and university bodies are engaging in may well result in compromise before students’ academic progress is significantly affected by a marking boycott, just as was the case previously. But the anxiety caused in the interim will nonetheless prove damaging. In a destabilised learning environment of rapidly changing Covid-19 regulations, further uncertainty could have a serious impact on finalists’ mental health.

The move seems likely to alienate many who may have been sympathetic to previous strikes, risking damaging student-staff relationships. So why is the UCU issuing such a controversial and potentially damaging threat?

It’s worth remembering that the dispute is not an entirely equal fight. Universities clearly have greater scope to flex their muscles without directly affecting students as demonstrated all too clearly by the University of Cambridge’s decision to dock a 25% pay for “each day that a staff member chooses not to reschedule lectures or classes disrupted by [strikes]”; the economic leverage employers wield is their ultimate trump card, risking negative press at worst.

Marking boycotts will likely be met by yet more cuts to pay and given the pre-existing economic insecurity of many of those taking part, staff will not be taking the decision to go on strike lightly. But marking boycotts have a successful track record for unions, historically bringing about swift conclusions to painfully protracted disputes.

In an increasingly monetised higher education sector in which students have been made “consumers” by key government policies, frustrated staff aiming for university wallets have little choice but to strike out at students as a crucial source of university revenue. And as the long-standing issues of over-work, under pay, contract instability and dwindling employment benefits seem unlikely to be resolved in upcoming talks, even if a compromise is reached on pensions, unfortunately students will likely find themselves in this unfair position once again.

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