This week one of the main lecturers’ Unions, the UCU, has announced that if the dispute over pay is not resolved they will strike from 28th April. You may remember back to October when you got an extra lie in (not that you needed one!) because strike action over the same issue closed many Universities. Unlike last time, this doesn’t involve a few leftist lecturers holding banners and chanting on campus. They are threatening to boycott the marking of students’ coursework and exam papers. This is the Union’s trump card, as striking goes, and will cause even more heated arguments between Universities and representatives of the staff.
The UCU has rejected the 1% pay rise that employers offered staff at the start of the year, and suggest that lecturers pay has actually decreased by 13% (in real terms) since October 2008. Therefore they are holding out for negotiations with University employers to obtain a better deal for their employees. There hasn’t been a marking boycott since 2006 but the Union claim that the rapidly declining situation warrants these threats. In a continuing tough economic market it is a bold statement of intent to threaten strike action of these sorts. Only a couple of weeks ago, workers in tube station offices went on strike and gained little support from the public. Many people are struggling in a Britain that is desperately aiming to recover economically and reduce the borrowing deficit. People are unlikely to have sympathy for University lecturers, who do not have an hour intensive job, and are striking despite being offered a pay rise.
Above: UCU strikes over pay in the Midlands
Amongst all this squabbling, the students are going to be the ones who are affected. If this strike does go ahead, as the UCU has threatened, final year students will potentially not be able to officially graduate when they should in the summer. Plus, in lower years, adjudicating whether someone has got the grades to progress into the next year will be impossible. Students are paying £9,000 per year and there is a chance that their end of year exams/coursework will not be marked! This isn’t really good enough and whatever the outcome of the negotiations the students’ interests should be a priority - this unfortunately won’t be the case.
So will this actually happen? Or are they just empty threats?
The Unions priority is the workers rather than the students, so there has to be a chance it will happen. To threaten this action so publicly means that they are serious about implementing it if the situation doesn’t improve for lecturers. However, if the tube strikes taught us anything, both sides will enter negotiation and eventually a deal will be brokered. The announcement is ten weeks before the strikes are meant to happen, which was deliberate as it gives both sides time to reach a deal. As the 28th April approaches there will be a greater inclination to find middle ground - the Universities do not want to let down students and the Union’s don’t want to take this action unless they absolutely have to.
Furthermore, the UCU do not want to end up with egg on their faces. Both UCU and higher education institutions are aware that support has decreased for strike action in the new year. By pulling out their trump card, the UCU could be seen as acting in desperation. The UCU believe that the staff are angry enough about their current deal to go through with this boycott, but others are unsure. It is a big decision for lecturers to let down their students that have been working hard throughout the year. Is the situation really bad enough to do this to their students? This will be going through the minds of lecturers and may cause them to turn their backs on their Union’s strikes. If this is the case, the Union’s position will be further weakened and will not have the power to negotiate a favourable deal with the Universities.
For now, we just have to wait and see. There is still plenty of time for both sides to find middle ground, which in the end is probably (and hopefully) what is going to happen.
We're interested to hear your thoughts. Do you think lecturers should partake in a marking boycott?