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UK students react to marking boycott

picture: Roger Blackwell
picture: Roger Blackwell

UNIVERSITY LECTURERS  in the UK have agreed to postpone a ban on marking essays or exams, after employers presented a new pay offer.

The new offer now being reviewed by the University and College Union (UCU) consists of a 2% pay rise. The union said the previous offer of a 1% rise still represented a real-terms pay cut of 13% since 2009.

The original marking ban was scheduled for the 28th April, but is now being moved to Tuesday 6th May while lecturers decide to vote on whether to accept or decline the new pay offer. UK lecturers and academics last used a marking ban in 2006 in a previous pay dispute.

With tuition fees increasing incrementally since then, and now up to £9000 annually, universities appear to feel they cannot let the marking ban pass over this time. According to the Independent, this is “because they feared students or parents could take legal action if they failed to try and ensure degrees were marked on time” in light of greater expectations fostered by higher fees.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), who negotiate on behalf of the universities, said they would dock the pay of lecturers participating in the boycott: “HE institutions have long had clear policies not to accept partial performance of duties and would be deducting pay from any staff who chose to take part, precisely in order to limit the impact on student’s education.”

According to a UCU study, “despite our higher education system being ranked second out of 50 countries for the results it produces, […] pay for UK lecturers is outstripped by all other countries except New Zealand. The figures showed UK lecturers were paid 45% less than Canadians, 34% less than American lecturers and 16% less than their Australian contemporaries”.

In addition, there is also a huge disparity in income for support staff in university libraries, administration, catering, cleaning and security. Unison, the union representing such workers, estimated that some 12,500 university employees were paid less than the living wage.

The success of the recent independent ‘3Cosas’ (three things in Spanish) campaign by a group of largely Latin American cleaners, supposedly backed by Unison, highlights this income inequality. The cleaners, employees of Balfour Beatty Workplace (BBW), who have been subcontracted cleaning duties by the University of London, were fighting for holiday, sick pay and pensions on par with university staff.

Furthermore, a recent Times Higher Education report noted that four-fifths of universities refused to release minutes of remuneration committee meetings, where the pay of vice-chancellors is set. Given that salaries and benefits for vice-chancellors rose by 5.5% in 2012-13, the argument that the money isn’t there for basic pay rises for university workers lower down the scale is unconvincing.

The reaction to the proposed marking boycott has led to mixed reactions from students across the UK. The marketisation of higher education and tripling of tuition fees has led many students to consider the situation more as consumers.

The Exeter Tab quotes Jenny Bird, a third-year English student, who said: “The strikes had caused many of my lectures and seminars – things I paid £9000 for – to disappear. We are inadvertently caught within the centre of their talks, when it isn’t our fight. Leave us out of it.”

In February, History students at Warwick University were organising their own replacement lectures, for those cancelled due to strike action undertaken by lecturers regarding the aforementioned pay dispute with the UCEA. Alexander Bunzl, a second-year History student, told The Boar that they are not replacing “the hard work of our excellent lecturers and tutors” but are demonstrating “entrepreneurial spirit”.

Elsewhere, Peter Clarke, of Bangor University’s student newspaper Seren, writes in defence of the striking lecturers: “After looking at what is being fought against, the effect of a strike on students is minimal. By causing a disruption in order to highlight the necessity of the worker, the teacher in this case is the purpose of strike action, so the disruption to the classroom is minimal”.

This pay dispute – setting institutions against workers, and students against staff –  is set against the backdrop of increasing wages for the upper management of universities across the UK, where the average vice-chancellor’s annual pay packet now stands at £254,692. Negotiations on the postponement of the marking boycott, affecting staff and students alike, continue on.

Viral Shah

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