The UCU has staged a day of protest – but will it change bosses’ minds over pay and conditions?

UCU members protesting at Brighton University marking boycott
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The University and College Union (UCU) has held a nationwide day of protests at universities. It’s over the ongoing dispute with bosses over pay and conditions, which has seen a nationwide marking boycott. The protests saw support from staff and students alike – and the UCU’s general secretary warned that if bosses don’t move, the union’s action would continue into the next academic year.

UCU: a protracted dispute with university bosses

As the Canary as been documenting, the UCU has been on dispute mode for well over a year. At first, it was over pay, conditions, and pensions – resulting in nationwide strikes. The union and the organisation responsible for pensions came to an agreement in April. However, members voted to reject the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) pay offer of derisory and imposed increases of between 5-8%.

So, UCU members began a marking boycott in April, known as action short of a strike. It’s been going on ever since. The union said on its website:

we are asking all UCU members in higher education institutions which are part of the pay and working conditions dispute to cease undertaking all summative marking and associated assessment activities/duties. The boycott also covers assessment-related work such as exam invigilation and the processing of marks.

Strikes, however, have been off the cards. UCU negotiations with the UCEA have proven unfruitful. As the union said:

UCU previously met with UCEA last week in an attempt to end the UK-wide university marking boycott and resolve the ongoing pay and working conditions dispute. Unfortunately, UCEA refused to table an improved pay offer or provide any redress for members who have been hit with punitive pay deductions.

So, the UCU called an emergency nationwide demo on Wednesday 26 July, to show the strength of feeling across the workforce as well as from students:

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By all accounts, the protests were a success.

Demos across the UK

Across the UK, universities saw demos. Oxford was packed:

Brighton University has been at the centre of a separate, ongoing dispute over bosses’ plans for redundancies. You can read the Canary‘s coverage of that here. So, staff and students were out in force there, too:

Keele University also saw protests:

There was a big turnout at Nottingham:

And York saw a demo too:

Crucially, though, and students also supported the UCU’s action. The National Union of Students (NUS) officially backed the protests – while branches came out at individual universities, like University College London (UCL):

Some students had previously even used their graduation speeches to send support to the UCU – despite them not actually getting their grades. One student said:

It would not be right to stand here and not acknowledge the hard work of staff, who have been fighting for no more than the bare minimum, fair treatment, and fair pay.

Back to the table – but to what end?

The day of action came before the UCU re-entered negotiations with the UCEA. The union’s general secretary Jo Grady said:

We cannot and will not allow employers to filibuster talks to a point where students miss out on their degrees and punitive pay deductions plunge staff further into debt.

UCEA now has a choice, listen to the modest demands of staff and students, and work with us to end the marking boycott, or lay the ground for even more disruption in the coming months and into the next academic year.

The challenge for the UCU is two-fold.

Firstly, and while a marking boycott is effective, to university bosses it represents nowhere near the same level of disruption as strikes. Do they really care if students have to wait for their final grades? Probably not.

Then there’s the issue of pay. The government’s acceptance of pay rises of between 5-7% for public sector workers doesn’t help the UCU – given the UCEA was offering between 5-8%. So it remains to be seen how far bosses will move. Therefore, the UCU is likely to have some difficult decisions to make – accept a lower pay offer, or continue the dispute. What it does next will shape the next academic year across higher education in the UK.

Featured image via Brighton UCU

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