Our Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) is now well into its second week. Already, the employers are extremely worried about it. They know that if our action remains solid, universities will be unable to fulfil what they see as their primary function – issuing degrees to students who have paid at least £9.25k a year to become graduates.
The immense strength of a MAB is that it is continuous action which the employers cannot simply ride out. They can try to find some strike-breakers to mark the work, but if participation in the action is high, there is too much marking to cover, in too many specialist areas. They can water down their marking and graduation standards, but this will effectively degrade degrees, so will not be popular with graduating students. If dissertations in particular remain unmarked, even this becomes impractical.
The MAB brings our conflict with our employers to a head. This is exactly what we need.
The employers are struggling to find an effective response. Most are threatening punitive deductions, but this is unlikely to be effective, while simultaneously alienating staff. Those threatening 100% deductions are dramatically raising the stakes by effectively threatening a lock-out of their staff.
Others are more cautious and are threatening to dock pay at a lower rate. But this is more difficult to justify legally. Once a smaller percentage is docked, the employer is obliged to say why is this particular percentage chosen. Who can say what is the precise percentage of marking in the workload of every individual member of staff? And staff are quite reasonably comparing the small percentages of their Workload Models with the scale of deductions employers are threatening.
What should our response be?
- We should not be panicked by the threat of deductions. In almost all of last year’s MABs – undertaken by twenty branches – no deductions were made. Their threats only work if we are scared of them. If we stand firm, the employers don’t get the marks, and if they want them, they have to remove the threat of pay docking.
- While many branches will wish to challenge the level of threatened deduction, negotiating with university managements over this cannot be the main focus for our dispute. Branches should seek to move towards strike action in response to deductions, whether they are 50% or 100%.
- Remember it is difficult for managements to actually make the deductions. Payroll cut-off dates mean that many members’ participation won’t be evident in time to be deducted from May’s pay packets. The next opportunity is the end of June but they will need the marks before then. Of course, we should continue to advise members not to declare their participation in advance.
- Nevertheless some members might suffer deductions in May and will either be locked-out or find themselves working for no pay. It is obviously very important to put wage-sharing mechanisms in place, but this is not enough. Attacks on individual members require a response from the whole branch in the form of strike action.
What kind of strike action do we need?
This needs to be decided on a branch-by-branch basis. If a branch believes that the way the employer is responding to the MAB is to make disproportionate deductions then it can adopt strike action as an alternative tactic. This can’t be done nationally, because this assessment necessarily varies between institutions.
In the hands of individual branches strikes can be targeted to hit key dates in the particular timetables of each institution, including exam boards.
Where members are hit with 100% pay deductions, branches may wish to take longer periods of strike action, and move towards strikes earlier.
Branches should be thinking now about the optimum time to begin strike action. The Special HE Sector Conference on April 19th passed motions allowing branches to request notification of strike action in 10-day (2-week) blocks. Subsequent blocks should be notified before the end of the previous block, but action can be suspended if employers back down over deductions or if the branch decides it would be more effective to wait.
Branches should take a decision in favour of striking in a quorate branch meeting, citing the day it should start or the days when it should occur. The law requires 14 days’ notice to employers. HQ will need an extra few days to do the paperwork, although the officials are saying it can be done swiftly. There are also template letters that can be sent to employers, but the real deterrent will be the notification of action itself.
To maintain maximum support for the MAB, members need to know we have a plan to respond to the threat of punitive pay docking. The law cannot be used to prevent the employers acting unlawfully now – only once deductions have been made can a case be taken to court, and cases can take years. Instead we need to make the employers realise that their bullying and intimidation will not work, and that the only way they avoid thousands of students being unable to graduate is to settle the dispute.