University staff have defended their decision to go ahead with a marking boycott that could potentially mean delays in the release of examination marks and graduations.

From Monday 28 April, participating members of the University and College Union (UCU) will refuse to mark coursework, examinations or any other formal  assessment.  They will not release the results of any such work.  With no  set time frame, the boycott would continue until employers agree to reopen negotiations.

For students, this could mean delays in the release of examination marks and of degree classes for impeding graduations scheduled to take place this summer.  St Andrews students will be potentially more affected than others in the UK because of its comparatively early examination period.  The boycott is due to be gin on the first day of revision week.

The boycott will aim to persuade the University and College Employers Association to reopen negotiations for fairer pay in the higher education industry for the academic year 2013/14.

This is the latest stage in a series of industrial action taken by higher education unions throughout this academic year.

Tom Jones, branch treasurer of the UCU committee in St Andrews, apologised to students for the potentially “disruptive”  impact  which the boycott might have.  He said: “Of course that’s the threat that is behind the action, we take it  very  seriously that that’s the threat that we’re making.  But we have given the employers since October, when we started taking this action, to reopen negotiations and we’ve never had any movement from them.”

He emphasises that members wish to cause as little damage to students’ experience as possible: “We would only do this if  we felt we really had exhausted all other means possible.”

He continued: “It’s possible that there could be delays to the reporting of exam results and delays in graduation.  But I promise you, and everyone who participates in the action will do the same, we will make every effort to get back to normality as soon as we have any sort of meaningful negotiations with the employers and the union calls off the action.  At that point everybody will make the utmost effort to get exam results in as soon as possible to make sure there is as little impact on students as is necessary.”

However, a boycott may yet not be not  necessary.  If  negotiations  are reopened prior to 28 April, the union will not immediately take any further action. Dr Jones said: “I don’t think there could be a really apocalyptic outcome.  Union  members will do their utmost to make sure that exam results are fairly and quickly reported as soon as the action is called off.”

Having already lost out on salary for one full day and three part days in their last pay package, Dr Jones is sure  that participating UCU  members will want to find a resolution as soon  as  possible  before  losing  even more money.

It is difficult to predict how many members of staff intend to participate in the boycott.  The UCU has about 400 members in St  Andrews but not all of these are teaching staff.  It is also up to the discretion of each member as to whether they take part in the action.

Dr  Jones hopes that as many members as possible will take part in the boycott.  He said: “We, the local committee,  will be persuading our members to participate and we as local activists will be staying with the action as long as the  national union asks us to. That’s the fundamental aspect of successful trade union work, we do it together because we’re all in it together.”

The UCU will also encourage its members who work in other areas around the University, such as the library, to show solidarity by continuing their ongoing work to contract campaign. This means that members will only work for as many hours as they are contractually obliged – they will refuse to attend meetings out with these, for example.

The pay dispute has arisen from years of falling take home pay. Wages have not increased in line with inflation. Over the last five years, the real term pay gap has widened to 15.2 per cent.  The proportion of Scottish universities’ expenditure spent on staff costs has also fallen in real terms by 9.8 per cent between 2008-09 and 2012-13.  This comes at a time of increasing costs of living; an HM Treasury forecast published in February 2014 anticipated a 16.5 per cent increase in cost of living by 2018.

Yet despite falling wages for most university workers, there has been a disproportionate rise in pay for principals and vice chancellors who earn an average of £250,000.  In 2011/12, a total of 2,761 higher education staff were paid more than £100,000.

The Joint Higher Education Trade Union Pay Related Equality Matters Claim, submitted on 20 March 2014, says: “Higher education is under going a period of almost unprecedented and rapid change.  There are increasing expectations from government, employers and students that all HE staff will continue to deliver excellence in teaching, research and support.

“The HE trade unions are not against change, however over recent years it’s clear that members have been rewarded  with small increases in pay that have resulted in year on year teal term pay cuts despite working harder and longer than ever.

“If the pattern of national bargaining outcomes over the last five years repeats itself in the coming years, members’ pay  will continue to decline. With the employers’ side reluctance to expand negotiations to cover pay related matters the  prospect for any meaningful agreements at a national level remains limited.”

Dr Jones further emphasised that the pay settlement is needed to ensure the future of academia as a viable profession for people from all financial backgrounds. With student fees and debts rising, graduates will be much more indebted by the time they reach a paid academic position.

He said: “So a lecturer’s salary has got to stand up to the new pressure of student debt and the new fee regime.  We can’t see the starting salary for a post-doctoral researcher or a beginning lecturer fall much lower without knowing that we will lose people from the profession who would otherwise join it.”

Though a graduate trainee job for someone with a good degree might advertise at around £40,000 a year, a newly qualified lecturer at St Andrews – a well-paying university – earns £37,000.  This is also after years of unpaid or poorly paid PhD and doctoral work.

“So if we’re going to keep the profession healthy and encourage good people into the profession, the salary really needs to be comparable to other kinds of salaries.”

Chloe Hill, the president of the Students’ Association, said:  “The proposed boycott shows that staff are seriously concerned about their pay situation, which equates to a 13 per cent pay cut since 2007.   I hope that the situation is resolved before the boycott starts at the end of April.”

Negotiations for the 2014/15 pay settlement have already begun.

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