Lecturers' marking boycott suspended

Image credit: Nick Efford

A marking boycott undertaken by academic staff across the country, which potentially threatened Cambridge exams, has been suspended following a breakthrough in negotiations.

The boycott began on 6 November, and was triggered by proposed changes to the pensions scheme for academic staff, which threatened academics at pre-1992 institutions with pension cuts of up to one-third.

The University and College Union (UCU) - the country’s largest trade union for academic staff working in Higher Education – led the opposition to these proposed changes and held a strike ballot for its members, in which 78 per cent voted to support industrial action.

This resulted in academic staff at 69 of the UK’s top universities agreeing to boycott the setting and marking of formal assessments. The boycott was set to continue indefinitely, potentially jeopardising summer exams at Cambridge.

At a meeting on 13 November, however, there was a thaw in the on-going dispute between UCU and Universities UK, after both sides softened their negotiating positions and employers agreed not to dock the pay of academics taking part in the strike.

The higher education committee of UCU subsequently met on 19 November to discuss the new proposals, and agreed to suspend the boycott until a meeting on 15 January.

A joint statement released by UCU and UUK stated the two bodies have agreed to a further “series of negotiating meetings”, and emphasised: “both parties are pleased that the agreement to suspend industrial action at this early stage will mean that students will not have been adversely affected and members of staff will not have had pay deducted.”

This is not the first time UCU have pursued strike action, only to back down after negotiations. This summer, a marking boycott over a pay dispute was called off at the last minute after a deal with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). 

The outcome has allayed concerns among students that the boycott could threaten their degrees. Fred Jerrome, Chair of the Cambridge Universities Labour Club said to The Cambridge Student: “"Staff at our uni, like so many other workplaces, have gotten a raw deal since the financial crisis. Reopening negotiations is better for everyone; staff, students, and the institution as a whole.”

However, some may share the view of a third year economist at Girton who said: “To be honest, I’m not sure I’d have been that upset had exams had to be cancelled.”

Previously, some student activist groups had expressed support for UCU’s marking boycott. In an article written for Varsity, Cambridge Defend Education wrote: “If you care about the quality of university education in this country, about the well-being of your lecturers, and think that maybe there might be more to life than working all day every day for the rest of your life, you should support the UCU marking boycott.”

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