by Rob Cuthbert
The UK HE academic year 2022-2023 is coming to an end, or not, amid disputes, unrest and polarised attitudes which seem unprecedented. Recent years have seen previous strikes, days of action, marking and assessment boycotts and more, but nothing quite like this. At the time of writing there seems little prospect of rapprochement between the employers and the Universities and Colleges Union. So the marking and assessment boycott continues, as ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS). Many students – no-one knows how many – have not received their degrees on time, and there are many reports of swingeing deductions of pay for those involved in the boycott – many, but we don’t know how many, staff and institutions are affected.
For the students who should by now be graduates this is an unhappy end to a repeatedly troubled period of study in HE and beforehand. Those who took GCSEs in 2018 are the most-assessed school cohort ever, after repeated government policy changes affecting their primary as well as secondary education. They then experienced the disastrous shambles of the A-level algorithm in 2020, before embarking on a mostly locked-down higher education experience which for many was also punctuated by academic staff strikes prompted by low pay, poor conditions and huge reductions in the USS pension entitlement. And then at the end of their three disrupted years of study comes this final blow, as some will not receive marks and therefore final awards before September, October or who knows when. Their progression to further study or employment may also be on hold, if as so often it depends on final results. To make things even worse, universities, under pressure from government, the media, and the regulator OfS, have cut back sharply on the proportion of first class honours to be awarded. Even graduands with first class results for their first two years may be in for future disappointment.
Universities were at pains throughout the lockdowns to argue that the alternative on-line provision they made was of equal value and maintained the same standards; it was convenient and inevitable that government would agree. Many staff worked wonders in redesigning their teaching for lockdown, almost overnight, so that much teaching might indeed have maintained standards. But universities’ marketing in most cases promotes a much broader vision of the student experience involving a range of curricular and extracurricular activities, many of which require physical attendance on campus. The legal situation is unclear, not least because there is no generic university-student contract, despite the best efforts of leading authority and OfS board member David Palfreyman, who has long argued for just such a contract in his definitive work with Dennis Farrington, The Law of Higher Education.
Nevertheless collective action by students is gathering momentum. On 16 March 2023 lawyers Farrer & Co issued advice to universities trying to deal with UCU action in the ongoing dispute. They noted that “… Student Group Claim is already seeking to recover financial compensation for students from leading universities for disruption to academic degrees caused by Covid-19 and strikes by university staff. With the level of industrial action taking place now, it would not be surprising to see similar claims being brought, potentially both in relation to strike action and ASOS.”
Universities face the uncertain but possibly costly outcome to that action as they try to cope with a rapid and massive loss of real income. Mark Corver (DataHE/THE) tweeted on 19 April 2023 about the March 2023 inflation figures, showing a 12-month change of 14%. The real value of fees has fallen 32% since 2012, when £9000 fees were introduced. In 2023 prices, fees should now be £13530; in 2012 prices they are actually now worth only £6150. Universities have lost the equivalent of £2.6billion in less than 18 months. At the same time the USS revaluation implied big cuts for staff and further massive costs for employers, until the latest changes suggested some relief. However universities’ TPS pension bill soared by £125million and Tom Williams reported for Times Higher Education on 30 May 2023 that universities were seeking Treasury relief for the steep increase in TPS payments from April 2024. The government seems disinclined to offer any relief, and is even doubling down by proposing to tighten the rules on international students and their dependants, which seems targeted at limiting the income of universities probably most in need of financial support.
UCU continues to assert that universities could afford a more generous pay increase than the offer on the table, but as David Kernohan explained for Wonkhe on 30 January 2023, most of the surpluses for the HE sector as a whole are confined to a handful of elite institutions. The system and structures are hugely complex: “There is a national pay bargaining system in higher education, though not all providers are party to it. National bargaining is fair because it supports equal pay for equal work, but as a consequence it constrains the overall offer to that which can be afforded by the most precarious employer and it can struggle to accommodate specific local issues.” There are arguments on both sides about whether ‘shiny new buildings’ should have been preferred to better staff pay in recent years, but the decline in HE staff pay has gone in step with the much broader decline in public sector pay over the last ten years. The current widespread unrest, with strikes by such improbably militant groups as schoolteachers, nurses, junior doctors and even hospital consultants, is a stark reminder of the precipitous decline in public spending, with its impact on not only pay but the quality of public services and working conditions for public servants. Many, it seems, have simply had enough of putting up with it and decided to draw a line, especially after so many had gone the extra mile to keep things going during the pandemic.
Even in early July the exchange of letters between employers and unions did not suggest that a resolution of the dispute was close. Tom Williams reported for Times Higher Education on 16 May 2023 on the growing pressures on managers, staff and students as the UCU marking and assessment boycott spread. David Kernohan provided a superb explanation on 26 June 2023 of where we are, how we got there, and what might happen next: “What is beginning to emerge at a local level – as exemplified by the joint statement between the UCU branch executive and vice chancellor at the University of York Charlie Jeffery – is a position where it is agreed that staff deserve to be paid more, and the universities need more money to be able to do so. Here we also find a focus on longer term thinking about pay, with both sides of the dispute keen to avoid annual industrial action.”
That may be a necessary precursor to actual negotiation to resolve the dispute, but such resolution still seems distant, and attitudes seem to be hardening as the marking and assessment boycott hits the target and explodes. Jim Dickinson’s blog for Wonkhe on 20 April 2023 speculated about the consequences of universities’ withholding pay for partial performance of academic contracts, and whether notional allowances for marking could be deemed reasonable, in a legal sense. Since then there have been horror stories about universities making very large deductions from pay, 50% or even 100%, for many months. We are in Ashes-Bairstow-stumping territory: deductions may be legal, but would you want to win a dispute this way? Is this the way to treat staff who only very recently moved mountains to keep the show on the road during Covid lockdowns?
The impact of the boycott is not just on staff incomes, nor even just on delays for students in getting their final marks and awards. The situation is a test for university management everywhere in how they respond. There are reports of universities making alternative arrangements for marking which seem to fall well short of a commitment to maintaining academic standards. In some universities some students have not received final grades. Others are reported to be resorting to apparently less-qualified staff or PhD students to mark students’ work to avoid graduation delays. If this is happening it suggests a reckless disregard not only for the long-term maintenance of academic standards, but also for long-term relationships with staff who will think their values are being trashed along with their pay and working conditions.
The producers of those end-of-the-pier shows knew what would play well. The government has produced higher education’s end of the year show and it should have known better, because none of the audiences find it popular or entertaining. Nevertheless, this show might run and run …