The Politics of the UK HE Marking Boycott

Academics in pre-1992 universities who are members of the University and College Union (UCU) will tomorrow be commencing a marking boycott in response to a planned attack by employers on our USS pension scheme.

By any reasonable measure, and despite losses suffered during the global financial crisis (GFC), USS is in good financial health, persistently taking in much more in contributions than it pays out to retirees. However, the arbitrary valuation method favoured by the UK Pensions Regulator – which has an interest in a highly conservative approach, to avoid employers running schemes down then leaving the regulator to carry the can – perversely shows the scheme in deficit. The ridiculous nature of the assumptions behind this valuation have been well explained elsewhere, as has the mendacity of Universities UK, the employers’ association, in using data misleadingly. Put simply, the claim that USS is unsustainable is based on the scenario of all contributing universities simultaneously ceasing to pay into the scheme, e.g. as a result of bankruptcy. By any reasonable measure, the scheme is not in serious difficulty in the short to medium term. Nonetheless, the employers have seized on the valuation to demand radical changes to USS, which will result in a cut in pensions of up to 27%. This follows changes imposed by the employers in 2011, which closed the final salary scheme to new entrants, put new staff onto a vastly inferior ‘career average’ scheme (which was even worse than the Teachers Pension Scheme (TPS), which is used in secondary, further and post-1992 higher education institutions), and shifted the burden of contributions from the employers to employees. It also follows years of minimal or zero pay increases, such that in the years since 2009, real pay has fallen by about 13% nationally and 17% in London.

Given this context, it is obvious that employers are seizing the opportunity of the perverse USS valuation to further cut staff costs. Insofar as the scheme faces difficulties because of the GFC, this represents yet another shunting of the costs inflicted by hyper-capitalism onto workers. And insofar as universities are trying to cut staff costs because of vast reductions in the public subsidy to higher education, it represents yet another indirect effect of austerity, which is again about socialising the costs of bailing out Britain’s financial institutions.

At stake in this industrial action is not just the fate of our pensions, but of our trade union. The marking boycott is just the latest in a recurrent spate of industrial action over pay and conditions, including on pensions in 2011 and pay in 2013/14. This time around, 78% voted for strike action and 87% for action short of a strike, on a 45% turnout – the highest since UCU’s formation in 2006, though still disappointingly low, given the stakes. However, each period of industrial strife was  botched by UCU’s national leadership, leaving the union progressively weaker. The earlier action on pensions was lost: despite some minor concessions from employers, they successfully rammed through changes to USS. The UCU Left grouping rightly warned that accepting this would only encourage the employers to come back for more later – as they are now doing. On pay, UCU itself declared that the principle of national collective bargaining – the union’s main raison d’etre – was at risk: UCU’s rejection of miserly annual pay offers had repeatedly been ignored, and employers were increasingly departing from the national pay scale and trying to tempt UCU branches into local-level settlements.

Yet, a comprehensive strategy on escalating industrial action, democratically determined by the union’s Higher Education conference, was simply ignored by the leadership. They failed to escalate the action from partial or one-day strikes into a marking boycott in the summer exam period, the only tactic that has proven successful in extracting pay rises in the past (in 2006, though even then the increases won barely exceeded inflation). By the summer of 2014, the membership was left confused and badly demoralised, there was no prospect of applying any serious pressure on employers until the autumn, and no strategy was forthcoming from the leadership. Unsurprisingly, the employers’ “final offer” – a 2% increase from August 2014 in addition to a previously rejected 1% increase in 2012/13 – was accepted by 83.7% of the 52.6% of members who voted on it. UCU members were thus forced, through inept leadership, to vote for yet another real-terms pay cut, and, moreover, to effectively tie the union’s hands on pay until after the next General Election (since the next pay negotiations will occur in the summer of 2015), curtailing the opportunity to politicise a struggle for decent pay and conditions. Clearly, these outcomes can only be understood as defeats.

Now, the UCU leadership has elected to use the recent ballot mandate to throw members suddenly into a marking boycott. This is not part of any coherent strategy. UCU has not yet unveiled any proposals for USS, so we do not yet know what its goals are; nor has it called an HE conference to consult branches and democratically work out a strategy to achieve these ends. Instead, members are being plunged into confrontation with management – via their students – with literally no end in sight.

This matters, not least, because many employers are likely to deduct our pay to break the action. In past actions short of a strike, several universities have asserted the right to withhold 100% of pay for “partial performance of duties”. UCU disputed this but – true to form – has not yet got its act together to challenge this in the courts, first seeking an individual test case, then deciding on a class action, but so far doing nothing concrete, and certainly not escalating to a nationwide strike to deter hard-line university managements. Already, York and Bradford universities have threated to withhold 100% of pay, and Leeds is threatening partial, retroactive pay docking. My own institution, Queen Mary, University of London, has just announced that it will deduct 100% pay, then issue an “ex-gratia” payment of 75% of salary, which it reserves the right to vary at will. One must have a grudging admiration for such vile tactical nous: it removes the incentive for all-out strike action (the only sensible response to a 100% pay reduction), but maintains a punitive level of pay docking that will discourage participation in the marking boycott. If only UCU’s leadership had the capacity to think like this. In reality, they have not even responded to these threats, despite a May 2014 HE conference resolution to escalate to immediate national strike action in such instances.

What is UCU leadership thinking? News from Leeds UCU suggests that they are preparing to offer employers a deal: to merge the final salary and career-average schemes into a (presumably improved) career-average scheme. While this may be the best we can hope for – something on par with the TPS, perhaps – this, too, has neither been proposed nor discussed at an HE conference, despite representing for most USS members, a massive reduction in our pay and conditions. Moreover, there is nothing to stop the employers coming back for more in future years; indeed, a major suspicion is that the current dispute is just part of a long-range plan to either minimise employer pension contributions, shifting the burden and risk entirely onto employees and pensioners, or even to wind up USS entirely. Essentially, once more, it looks like UCU’s national leadership is preparing to sell out its members, potentially settling for a weak outcome that it will then seek to ratify through a national vote, bouncing members into accepting it because, having botched the industrial action and lacking any stomach or plan for a fight, the leadership will offer no other alternative.

At stake, then, is not just our deferred pay in the form of pensions; it is also the future of UCU as a democratic trade union. The leadership has repeatedly ridden roughshod over democratic mandates determined at HE sector conferences, pursuing its own timid, erratic and incompetent agenda. This has led to repeated defeats, which have only further compromised UCU’s ability to perform the basic functions of any trade union – to defend members’ jobs, pay and conditions. If UCU botches the current dispute, the active membership will be even more demoralised, and an already predominantly passive membership will sink further into resignation and despair.

The only way to avoid this outcome is for an HE conference to be convened and a goal and strategy democratically agreed. The ends for which we are fighting must urgently be clarified, along with our negotiating parameters and a clear sense of what we will accept. A phased strategy of escalating industrial action must be devised, and clearly communicated to members, ideally one which hurts employers directly and minimises the instrumentalisation of our students. We also need to take strong action to beat back employers withholding pay, and support those vulnerable to such deductions. And above all else, the national leadership and UCU’s negotiators must be held to the plan, rather than being allowed to do as they wish.


7 thoughts on “The Politics of the UK HE Marking Boycott

  1. Slight update: this morning the general secretary of UCU, Sally Hunt, emailed members and said, inter alia: “Members faced with the threat of… punitive deductions will of course be able to access support from the UCU strike fund… the worst institutional culprits will be subjected to every form of pressure available to the union up to and including national strike action and a global academic boycott if they fail to see sense.” So, a threat of action, but no action. What will it take to trigger escalation?


  2. Our branch meeting was told last week that UCU’s own proposal is to close the Final Salary scheme … but not a mention on the UCU website (as members take/prepare to take action!)


  3. Pingback: The Politics of the UK HE Marking Boycott – Part IV: The Betrayal | The Disorder Of Things

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