Don’t suspend the MAB, keep up the pressure – where’s our ballot?

Report on HEC meeting – 30 June 2023

By a single vote, UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) on Friday voted to approach the employers to negotiate a possible ‘interim agreement’ to suspend the Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) ‘as soon as is practical, and subject to member consultation’ – despite not receiving a new offer from the employers’ organisation, UCEA. 

National negotiators warned against offering to suspend the MAB, pointing out that there was no sign from the employers right now that they would be prepared to enter into constructive negotiations. In fact, UCEA has said that they will agree to talks only if UCU stands down the action, and if we accept that there will be no increase in the pay offer. 

But this suspension plan was put to the HEC with the full backing of the General Secretary, who had the ‘comms ready to go’ should HEC agree. 

Members received a message from Jo Grady that avoids stating clearly what happens if the employers do not agree to UCU’s terms:

We will be making it clear to the employer that we are seeking:

  • an improved offer on pay and conditions,
  • an immediate end to all punitive pay deductions
  • a return of all punitive pay deductions
  • a commitment from employers to recognise staff’s entitlement to leave and to a reasonable workload on their return to normal working

Members are promised a consultation, but it will inevitably be a take-it-or-leave-it vote. 

Our union has the upper hand. Despite bullying, threats of deductions and plaintive calls from VCs, members have stood fast. Marks are not coming in, and many students currently cannot graduate. Of the graduations taking place, many students are given provisional marks. 

HEC has blinked first

This is a very bad decision. Branches are at loggerheads with their employers right now. However this is spun, any sign of weakness will encourage the employers to wait out the MAB. 

Members have every right to be furious. We have mobilised members at a higher level of organisation than ever before. We have made enormous sacrifices to get to this point. We have been supported by our students. What are we to say to them – that none of this suffering was worth it because some of our leadership had no stomach for a fight? 

Wasting momentum in this dispute has implications for the USS campaign, and for our colleagues working in FE, who are building up for a national campaign. Members in prisons and ACE will be concerned by the General Secretary’s decision to blink first. And it will obviously weaken the position of our sister unions in Higher Education, who have benefited from the strength shown by members of the largest union. An injury to one is an injury to all.

There is no sign that the action is weakening on the ground.

Delegates from more than 30 UCU branches who met just the day before at an unofficial Branch Delegates Meeting opposed any suggestion that action should be stood down. Delegate after delegate talked about how exam boards had refused to ratify unmarked modules and progress or graduate students. Members can feel their power. Even where the MAB has been circumvented, this is often by unqualified markers, single markers, interpolated scores, condoned mandatory modules, etc. – all of which come with a massive reputational cost to the student, as well as the employer.

Where does this leave union democracy? Members voted in an Industrial Action Ballot knowing they would be called upon to take part in the MAB. They then voted again in an e-consultation about JNCHES and USS disputes. We had two Sector Conferences – an online Special Sector Conference, and one in-person HE Sector Conference in Glasgow – that set clear policy to take the Marking and Assessment Boycott to this point. 

It was always clear that the dispute would come to a head. 

The groups that aligned on HEC to vote for this motion are the ‘Commons’ group aligned with the General Secretary and the old ‘IBL’ grouping. They are doing their best to let the employers off the hook, and the GS made it clear she supported their motion. 

If they had the slightest confidence in a planned suspension, they would have proposed it to a branch meeting, never mind Sector Conference. They did not. 

We need to demand the summer reballot begins promptly. For one thing, it would it be very dangerous to leave branches still facing MAB deductions without a mandate to strike in the autumn. But it would also be a massive setback if UCU were not in a position to fight alongside Unison and Unite HE branches, not to mention schoolteachers and head teachers who all plan to strike then. With our FE colleagues also moving into the fray, the possibility exists for a powerful strike movement in defence of education in autumn 2023. We should be part of it.

It is deeply regrettable that Friday’s HEC voted down a UCU Left motion for a week of strike action before the end of the current mandate. But although the General Secretary clearly wanted it to, HEC did not countermand the summer ballot voted for by Glasgow’s Sector Conference in order to renew our mandate. This ballot must now be organised urgently. 

HEC did vote for a national political campaign to support the MAB, and to support the ‘greylisting’ (academic boycott) of Brighton University, called for by Brighton UCU over redundancies. But these wins are dwarfed by the self-inflicted setback the GS and HEC majority have wrought on the union.

Open Briefing organised by UCU Left
No surrender to the employers

Defend democracy, defend the MAB
7pm Tuesday 4 July
Zoom registration:

Get your branch to pass this motion

This branch believes that

  1. the MAB is currently exerting huge pressure on the employers
  2. now is not the time to offer concessions
  3. the offer of an ‘interim agreement’ sends a dangerous signal that we have no stomach for the fight.

This branch calls for

  1. an urgent BDM to discuss the MAB
  2. the decisions of Sector Conference to be respected and implemented, including the summer reballot, which should begin immediately.

This branch resolves to contact our geographical and UK-wide representatives on HEC to explain the way they voted on the key motions at last Friday’s meeting and under what circumstances they would vote to overturn decisions made by HE Sector Conference.


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