UK universities strike local deals to end marking boycotts

Local union branches secure major wins in long-running disputes but others left with nothing

June 10, 2022
Source: Eleanor Bentall

UK universities have offered bonuses and promises of better contracts to staff taking part in marking boycotts but some fear local settlements to the disputes risk leaving the sector fragmented.

Since academics at 19 institutions pledged to refuse to grade essays and exams from 23 May, deals have been struck at the universities of Nottingham, Sheffield and Sussex, as well as Newcastle and Ulster universities.

Other University and College Union branches, including at the University of Leeds, are considering whether to accept offers from management, while Durham University did not start the boycott as planned after agreeing a local deal.

Some union branches have secured significant concessions from their universities in long-running disputes over pay, working conditions and pensions after months of deadlock. Deals have included one-off “thank you” payments of up to £1,000, the establishment of working groups and action plans to tackle pay gaps and workloads and some staff on short-term contracts being moved to permanent posts.

Joint statements calling for the Universities Superannuation Scheme to carry out a new valuation of its pension fund – which could lead to reduced contributions or better benefits – have also been published.

At Sussex, planned compulsory redundancies were cancelled and doctoral tutors’ contracts will be renegotiated. Interim vice-chancellor David Maguire hailed the agreement as “very important” and praised everyone involved for their “willingness to find a compromise”. Staff were set to complete their marking so students could graduate and were promised no pay would be docked.

Andreas Bieler, professor of political economy at Nottingham and the UCU branch treasurer who helped negotiate a local deal, said the union had tried to secure talks with management “months ago” but it was only the threat of degree results being delayed that suddenly led to serious engagement.

“I think it did show that the marking boycott, especially the uncertainty around how many people were going to participate and which areas would be most severely affected, instilled a sense of urgency for management that was quite visible,” he said.

His colleague at Nottingham Michaela Collord said that although the deal had been struck locally, it was only through coordination with other branches and the national union that they were able to secure the “major wins” they did.

“We’ve just had this gruelling year of constant balloting and re-balloting and strike action with zero response from management. It’s been really demoralising,” added the assistant professor of politics.

“Suddenly with these marking boycotts they are listening…I think it has been hugely important to rebuilding confidence at Nottingham and I would like to be able to send that message to other branches as well, so we don’t re-enter next year feeling powerless or exhausted.”

Despite the local gains, there has been unease within sectors of the union that the ad-hoc approach to resolving the disputes risks leaving some branches isolated.

Motions at the organisation’s recent congress committed the union to holding a further ballot on whether to continue the disputes into the autumn. Activists said this time it should be aggregated, meaning the union will vote and take action as a whole, but only if it can pass the 50 per cent turn out threshold. UCU said decisions on how to proceed won’t be made until July.

David Hitchcock, senior lecturer in history at Canterbury Christ Church University, was one of those in favour of the move.

“I am not a member of this union to secure some good conditions for some workers, I am here to secure consistent, good and secure working conditions for all the workers in my industry, via collective bargaining. I accordingly want my collective to be as large as possible, so my bargain will be as good as it can be,” he wrote on his personal blog.

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