Exeposé Issue 630, Front Page (10 November 2014) and Exeposé News online (11 November 2014) – collaboration with News Co-editor Emily Leahy
Exeter was one of 69 universities across the UK to see the start of a marking boycott last Thursday, in the wake of ongoing pension rows with the University and College Union (UCU).
On Thursday 6 October, UCU members across the country launched a boycott of marking work, returning marks and setting or sitting exams and coursework, after continuing disputes over proposed changes to staff pensions.
UCU currently has 658 members at Exeter and told Exeposé: “we estimate that we have a density of around 60-70 per cent of full-time lecturers in membership.”
It is understood that UCU members could choose whether or not to follow the boycott.
Back in February, a similar boycott saw Exeter graduations endangered as members of UCU, Unison and Unite rejected the one per cent pay rise offered to university staff.
Members threatened to refuse to mark final exam papers and dissertations over the summer if the dispute was not resolved by 28 April.
However, a two per cent wage increase offered by the University and College Employers Association saw the boycott postponed until 6 May – and then cancelled completely after 84 per cent of UCU members…accepted UCEA’s offer.
The current disagreement follows proposals to revise the current pension scheme (USS) to address a substantial deficit between the value of the benefits already built up and the value of the fund’s assets, estimated to be £8 billion in March 2014.
UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt said of the dispute: “The employers have failed to convince us of the need for their dramatic changes to pensions, which would leave staff thousands of pounds worse off a year in retirement.”
Describing their proposals as “full of holes,” she continued: “the information they are relying on to back them up keeps being exposed as misleading,” explaining: ‘USS members have made it clear they are unconvinced by the employers’ arguments as well.”
Hunt added: “We understand that the dispute will affect students so the quicker we can reach an agreement, the better.”
UCU wrote to universities asking them to consider their reactions – and warning of greater sanctions if they dock full pay from boycotting staff.
In a letter to Exeter University – sections of which were released to Exeposé by UCU – the Union asked the University “to consider your approach to deductions for this action. Considering that work related to assessment and marking constitutes a minority of work for most academic and professional staff, it is manifestly unjust to fine members 100 per cent of their wages.”
The letter continued: “Implementing such a draconian policy will only serve to exacerbate and prolong what is already a bitter dispute”
So far only the University of York has said it will levy 100 per cent pay cuts from day one of the dispute.
Prior to the boycott’s outset, a University of Exeter spokesperson commented: “We recognise that students may be concerned about potential industrial action by UCU impacting on their assessments. The University is already working very hard to minimise the effects of any examination and marking boycott at Exeter.”
As the boycott began on Thursday, an email sent by the University assured Exeter students that “after the Christmas break, exams will go ahead as scheduled,” emphasising that assignments will still need to be submitted by deadlines.
VP Education Ben Street stated: “The Students’ Guild cannot support the UCU action which will impact students profoundly. While we sympathise with staff whose position has been forced by circumstances beyond their control, we cannot condone action which could have far reaching implications for thousands of Exeter students.
He continued: “Happy employees are absolutely essential to the delivery of a world class student experience and the Students’ Guild will continue to work with both the University and the Unions over the coming weeks to minimise the impact on the student experience and try to reach an end to dispute as quickly as possible.”
Students can email firstname.lastname@example.org for further advice and information, whilst those concerned about specific assessments are encouraged to contact the SID direct.