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‘It would be a betrayal to back down now’: university pay row reaches new level of acrimony | Industrial action


When Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), stood at the podium of its annual congress yesterday, she said she had “never been so proud to be part of this union as I have in recent weeks, watching you all stand firm in the face of vindictive, bullying behaviour from employers.

“Our wins this year have been achieved through unity,” she told the assembled lecturers. “Facing the fights ahead, let’s focus our energy on the real enemy: the employers.”

The union is at the heart of the country’s longest-running dispute over pay and working conditions. But while nurses and train drivers seem to grab the headlines every time they take to the picket line, embattled academics, who have been involved in rolling industrial action for the past five years, are often forgotten.

Grady has led that fight since 2019, but there was a reason why she was so keen to stress the identity of the “real enemy”. For outside the conference hall this weekend, one of the biggest topics of conversation has been Grady herself.

This weekend she was set to be the subject of several votes of no confidence in her own leadership. Different union branches have tabled motions amid widespread anger about Grady pausing strikes at the last minute in February. Many members said this was premature, with movement on pensions but no new offer on pay.

But there is also frustration about Grady voicing her outspoken views so regularly on social media. This month, she was forced to pay damages to a controversial populist trade union activist she had attacked on Twitter.

Dr John Parrington, associate professor in cellular and molecular pharmacology at Oxford University, who has tabled one no-confidence motion in Grady on behalf of Oxford UCU, said: “There was a lot of anger about the offer she put out to the members [last month] as we were basically being told to accept a pay cut, and we were suspicious of what was being promised on pensions.”

In April, UCU members called a halt to the union’slong-running dispute over pensions after 85% voted online to accept a deal to improve retirement benefits. However, 56% rejected an offer on pay and working conditions, triggering a national exam marking boycott.

Oxford UCU also did not like the offer being put out to an e-ballot of all members without input from branch committees. “It wasn’t properly democratic,” Parrington said.

However Grady fares at the congress, Parrington insisted that “it would be a betrayal of everyone looking for a future in higher education to back down on the dispute now”.

He added: “People think Oxford is full of people in tweed jackets drinking port, but so much of the teaching here is done by people on insecure, precarious contracts.”

Such accusations have not bypassed Oxford’s new vice-chancellor, Prof Irene Tracey, who said at her inauguration in January that one of her first acts would be to investigate pay and working conditions, to try to alleviate the “really tough” pressures on junior academics in particular.

While questions swirl about the capability of the UCU and its leader to negotiate successfully, it is clear there is little sign of either side conceding. If anything, both are turning the thumbscrews tighter.

Universities across the UK are ramping up punishments for staff taking part in the boycott, with university leaders facing a frantic attempt to stop delays to degree results and graduations this summer.

In moves academics called “bullying” and “wildly disproportionate”, 30 universities have pledged to withhold 100% of the pay of academics who refuse to mark work including coursework and exams, with a further 43 universities threatening deductions of between 50% and 80%, according to a spreadsheet compiled by union branches and seen by the Observer. Some universities are also denying leave during this week’s half-term unless academics do marking first.

Angry UCU members said they would discuss the possible escalation of the dispute at the congress, with many local branches keen to move to further strikes.

As the dispute drags on, many academics are panicking about how to pay their bills and rent, as well as buy food, if they lose pay.

Dr Feyzi Ismail, lecturer in global policy and activism at Goldsmiths, University of London had 19 short-term contracts at three universities between 2013 and 2021, and said it was “so stressful not knowing if you would have a job in a year”.

She is set to lose full pay for refusing to mark, which she says she cannot afford. “I’m a single mother with a small child and can barely make ends meet at the end of the month by the time I’ve paid the bills, including childcare,” she said. “But the boycott is a way to put real pressure on employers to do something about our pay and conditions.”

Dr Sara Uckelman, associate professor of philosophy at Durham University, said five years of rolling strikes had been “exhausting”. “There has been a win on pensions, but it really matters to me that we solve the important issues including pay and workload. I’d like to work in a job that isn’t slowly killing me.”

Prof David Clough, chair in theology and applied sciences at Aberdeen University, has resigned as a part-time external examiner at Edinburgh University in protest at 100% deductions there and at other universities. He said: “This is a really conscious swerve across the country towards a policy of bullying and coercion. Universities are clubbing together to try to intimidate people out of taking industrial action. He added: “If they proceed with this, a lot of academic staff who are already on the borderline of being able to afford living prices are going to be pushed into real hardship.”

Dr Chris Hesketh, a reader in international political economy at Oxford Brookes University, said there was “utter fury and demoralisation” across the sector. He said he felt he had a moral responsibility to stand up for more junior staff on precarious contracts, but doing so had already cost him thousands of pounds in lost pay. “It’s difficult and frightening.”

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Last summer, Queen Mary University of London was branded the worst university employer in the UK by the UCU for pushing through 100% deductions in a similar marking boycott. At that point, the university was seen as an outlier for its harsh approach, but Vicky Blake, vice-president of the UCU, said it has been shocking to see “wildly disproportionate” full and half-pay deductions sweep through the whole sector this time round.

Queen Mary University of London was branded the worst university employer in the UK for deducting 100% of wages in a marking boycott. Photograph: Justin Kase/Alamy

“This aggressive coordinated approach, advocated by the UCEA [Universities and Colleges Employers Association] is obliterating any remaining shreds of goodwill,” she said.

University bosses are well aware their threats have poured petrol on the flames of staff resentment, arguably making union members less likely to back down and vote for a resolution. Yet they say that targeting graduations was designed to cause maximum disruption to students and universities, and left employers with no choice but to take a hard line.

Prof Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, a member of the prestigious Russell Group, said: “We have had to take action that is unpalatable, but what are we supposed to do? How could I tell a parent that staff aren’t marking students’ work and I’ve sat back and just let it happen?”

Cardiff is officially deducting full pay for what it describes as a “breach of contract”, but has pledged to refund half of that money to boycotting academics as a “goodwill gesture” to try to avoid relations deteriorating too far. Prof Riordan said the “painful stalemate” would not be broken by universities offering to increase the existing offer of pay rises of between 5% and 8%, because so many were seriously struggling as a result of tuition fees for UK students remaining almost static for 10 years and failing to keep pace with inflation.

The Russell Group has estimated that on average its universities will be losing £4,000 a year on every UK undergraduate by next year.

Riordan said: “There are universities that are absolutely adamant that they can’t afford more than has been offered so our hands are tied. With collective bargaining, you can’t act outside of the group.”

Speaking to the Observer, Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the UCEA, said that this year, even excluding pension liabilities, 27 higher education institutions out of the 144 in collective bargaining are in deficit and a further 27 have a surplus of between zero and 3%, meaning that even the existing offer would put many universities in a “very difficult” position.

He said: “The accounts that are public are for the period ending last year, but what is coming down the line with increases such as energy costs is really quite stark.”

The union counters that the university sector generated a record £44.6bn last year and “can more than afford” to improve pay. To end this deadlock, Jethwa said he would be willing to work with the UCU to find a way of verifying the financial health of the sector as a background to more frank pay negotiations. He said employers would be willing to commit to establishing a set of principles for addressing job insecurity and improving conditions for early career academics. He also said that talks to date had been “really quite successful” and the two sides were “not that far apart”. He added: “Further escalation would be regrettable.”

In a message to union members last Monday, Jethwa said this weekend’s meeting “must avoid its usual infighting and carefully consider students and members, as this looks to be a last chance for an agreed solution to return to the table”.

The remark caused outrage among many academics on social media, and Grady told the Observer it was “a desperate attempt to distract from the UCEA’s own woeful mishandling of this dispute”. She added that the union was “more united than ever” and “focused on winning.”

Both sides say they want an end to this bitter dispute. Whether that end is getting any closer remains to be seen.

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