Exam marking boycott by UK university staff could delay graduations this summer

Students face potential delays in their degree results and graduations this summer after the University and College Union said it would go ahead with industrial action over pay that could result in exams and essays being left unmarked.

While UCU members called a halt to the union’s long-running dispute over pensions, after 85% voted to accept a deal to improve retirement benefits, they also voted to reject an offer on pay and working conditions, triggering the marking boycott starting on Thursday.

Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary, said employers needed to return to negotiations to avoid delays caused by the assessment boycott by members working at 145 UK universities.

“University staff have been clear that they want a better deal, and it is in the interests of employers to make an enhanced offer and prevent serious disruption hitting graduations,” Grady said.

The rejected proposal would have committed employers to ending the use of zero-hours contracts and other forms of casual contracts, as well as further negotiations on closing equality pay gaps and reduce workloads. The deal included an earlier pay increase of between 5% and 8% made earlier this year.

The boycott means that exam results or coursework marks could be delayed, leaving some students unable to complete their degrees and graduate before the end of the academic year.

The UCU will hold a special meeting of its higher education branch this week to consider further steps over pay, which may include strike action. Last month UCU members were on strike for three days, and voted to renew the union’s strike mandate for a further six months.

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said the rejection of the pay offer was “disappointing but not surprising” after UCU advised members to vote against acceptance.

Jethwa suggested that the union’s membership was split over the deal, with only a third of its members voting in consultative ballot to reject the offer, despite employers taking part in talks with UCU on working conditions through the Acas conciliation service.

“Although two-thirds of academics are not actually members of UCU or any union, any threat to hurt students by not assessing their work through the marking and assessment boycott is taken extremely seriously. Despite consistent feedback from higher education institutions confirming low and isolated industrial action impacts, institutions will again prioritise mitigations to support students,” Jethwa said.

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Grady hailed the end of the pensions dispute as a life-changing victory for the union. “When we launched our pensions dispute, university vice-chancellors doubted us, and government ministers criticised us,” Grady said.

“We were told it was impossible to win back a stolen pension, but today UCU members have proven that it can be done, and we have taken a giant step towards a historic victory that will change lives.”.

The pensions deal aims to overturn substantial cuts in retirement income imposed through the universities superannuation scheme last year, which UCU claimed would reduce average benefits by 35%.

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