Students face marking boycott if universities “refuse to budge” on staff pensions

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The University and College Union (UCU) has warned that staff at 68 campuses, including Durham, are preparing to continue strike action this February. 

The Union’s higher education committee backed “sustained industrial action” on Wednesday, threatening “UK wide and regional rolling strikes” should university employer bodies fail to meet its demands in an ongoing dispute over pension cuts and pay and working conditions. 

In an email to members yesterday, the UCU confirmed the action would “progress to a marking and assessment boycott should employers refuse to budge”.

The last such strike took place in November 2014, but was soon suspended after the national body representing universities agreed to talks in January. In 2006, thousands of students graduated months late as a boycott took hold during peak assessment season.

In 2014, the proposed action included not marking students’ work, including formative and summative assessments, coursework, and presentations, not communicating marks to anyone if work has already been marked, not giving feedback on students’ work, and not attending any exam board meetings.

The principle also applied to all students, including those on professional courses who need to complete a certain stage of study successfully before being allowed into placement settings.

Our priority is now on making sure any impact to student education and staff workload is minimised.

Durham University in november

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said the Union does not “take this action lightly” but that “university staff are tired of falling pay, cuts to pensions, unsafe workloads and the rampant use of insecure contracts”.

She added: “Time is running out for university bosses to avoid more disruption this term […] We hope vice chancellors finally see sense and address the long-standing concerns of staff. If they don’t, any disruption will be entirely their fault.”

Durham Students’ Union has backed staff industrial action this year, but it is unclear whether the support would extend to the marking boycott, which the SU voted to oppose in 2014. Palatinate understands a decision on support of the boycott will be reached in the coming week.

Durham and 57 other universities faced strikes last term from 1st to 3rd December. When industrial action was first announced Durham University told Palatinate thatour priority is now on making sure any impact to student education and staff workload is minimised. Members of the Durham community can stay up to date at our dedicated USS changes webpage, which has detailed information on the proposed changes and sector developments.”

Ten more UCU branches are expected to join the upcoming round of strikes following member reballots in branches which did not reach the turnout threshold in last term’s votes. 

Durham’s UCU branch did not require a reballot as members came out strongly in favour of strikes in the initial votes. On a 63% member turnout, almost 80% voted in favour of action over the proposed pension cuts. 

The Union is contesting proposed changes to the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), the sector’s principal pension benefit system. They argue that the proposals would significantly cut the annual guaranteed pension and limit protection from inflation. 

Strike action was also called to address the Union’s ‘four fights’: rising workloads, staff casualisation, workplace inequalities, and pay issues. The UCU has proposed a £2,500 pay rise for all staff and measures to tackle unmanageable workloads and insecure contracts. 

Image: Sarah Matthews

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