Oxford University lecturers joined an assessment and marking boycott last week in protest against proposed changes to staff pensions.
The strike, which began on the 6th of November, will be participated in by lecturers who are members of the University and College Union (UCU). The boycott means the lecturers involved will refuse to mark work, set exams or mark coursework. Over 1.2 million students nationally will be affected by the marking boycott, spread over 69 universities.
The boycott follows a decision by Universities UK (UUK) to change the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), a pension plan for academics at the UK’s “old” universities, including Oxford. According to UCU, the changes will mean that lecturers will have to pay more into their pension schemes in the future. With nearly 10,000 members, Oxford has the largest number of members in the USS pension scheme.
In response to the boycott, some universities have threatened to dock the pay of any lecturers involved. The University of York has stated that it will be docking 100% of the pay of any staff involved. A UCU statement promised even greater sanctions for any universities choosing to take such action, calling the response “unjust” and promising to “isolate the worst culprits as pariahs within the global academic community through a full academic boycott”. In a letter to the 69 affected universities, UCU’s head of bargaining, Michael MacNeil, stated that any pay docking will “only serve to exacerbate and prolong what is already a bitter dispute” and “cause long-lasting and deep-seated harm to industrial relations at your institution”.
Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary commented: “Docking 100% of pay from staff who are continuing to perform the vast majority of their duties is completely unethical and risks causing greater damage to students’ education. Punitive pay docking could lead to lectures and seminars being cancelled as members refuse to work for free. Any institution docking full pay and claiming it has students’ interests at heart is lying.”
When asked about Oxford University’s stance on docking the pay of striking lecturers, a University spokesperson stated: “The University does not intend to pay its separate marking or examining fees to those who do not take part in examining. The University is not at present making other deductions in pay but reserves the right to refuse to accept partial performance at any future date. In that event, an appropriate deduction in pay would be made.”
“This is a national issue concerning the pensions scheme administered on behalf of all UK universities. The University will always respect the right of individuals to take part in lawful industrial action. However, it has been making contingency plans to minimise any disruption or inconvenience to students and staff.”
James Blythe, OUSU VP for Access and Affairs, commented: “OUSU is working with the University to ensure that students get clear and early communications about any impact on their assessment resulting from the boycott. In terms of impact, we should be clear that the dispute is between UCU & the University – so college teaching and assessment shouldn’t be affected. It’s for OUSU Council, not me, to set OUSU’s stance on the issues involved: until such a time as Council sets a view, OUSU officers will be working to facilitate communications and mitigate the impact on students. Three OUSU sabbatical officers have already had a productive meeting with the UCU leadership.”