In the past month, university bosses have threatened to withhold the pay of workers observing a marking boycott. These draconian acts – intended to break their workers’ spirit – have only emboldened them.

Universities are stepping up their attacks on staff taking industrial action over pay and working conditions. (Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Jessica always wanted to work in academia. The journey there hasn’t come without its challenges. She worked in restaurants and retail to support herself financially throughout her master’s degree, spending eight years on various insecure contracts in the university sector. For the past two years, she’s been on a permanent contract—a job she loves and a privilege she once dreamed of. 

But getting in has only been half the battle—and things have taken a turn for the worse in recent years. ‘We have an unimaginable workload. Most of us work through weekends precisely to get things like marking done,’ she tells Tribune. ‘If we want to do any research, which a lot of us go into the job for, we do that in our holidays.’ Administration work fills up the working day for staff as universities seek to save money on administrators and student support services are cut to the bone. In recent years, the sheer volume of emails and calls she has with students on a daily basis has significantly increased. 

Jessica’s experience is far from an isolated case. Jordan Osserman, a lecturer at the University of Essex, spent years on casualised contracts as a postdoctoral researcher, often struggling to make ends meet. This year, he’s managed to get a contract as a lecturer. ‘I have experience of how rough the university sector can be and how poorly it treats the lowest paid employees,’ he tells Tribune. Jordan feels a sense of duty to fight for colleagues in less secure positions, but there’s a multitude of issues lecturers like him face too. 

University staff have suffered a 25 percent real-terms pay cut since 2009 and are being pushed to breaking point under deteriorating working conditions and colossal workloads.  Jordan and Jessica are two of 70,000 university staff at over 145 institutions engaged in a long and bitter dispute over pay and conditions.  There’s plenty to fight for, and that fight shows no sign of abating anytime soon. The University and College Union (UCU) has ramped up industrial action, with a marking and assessment boycott (MAB) aimed at forcing employers to get around the table to negotiate a better deal.  

The boycott began on 20th April with no set end date. Staff like Jordan believe this is the strongest industrial tool at their disposal and makes managers incredibly nervous. It affects graduation and the fundamental business of the university in a way many other forms of strike action don’t. ‘Even though it’s not a huge official part of our workload, it’s the thing that universities really care about—how to produce degrees.’ For some lecturers, this might mean postponing the marking of 100 essays. For others, it might only be five or six late submissions that they do not mark. All staff observing the marking boycott expect to complete outstanding work once a pay deal is reached.

Starving Staff

But instead of getting around the table, many universities are threatening to deduct up to 100 percent of staff’s wages even on days when there is no industrial action, meaning staff will take home empty pay packets. It’s a shameless attempt to punish workers for defending their rights—and potentially illegal, according to employment law experts, who say some deductions may constitute not only breaches of contract but break National Minimum Wage laws. 

SOAS University of London is among the institutions engaging in this form of wage theft which will impact the most vulnerable staff in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. With inflation at ten percent, this bullying behaviour threatens to push thousands into poverty, particularly those on precarious contracts, who are disproportionately from working-class backgrounds and some of the lowest paid in the sector. For some staff, it may result in evictions from rented accommodation, debt and other hardships. 

At the University of Essex, staff have been told that if they declare they are boycotting within the next week—something they are not legally required to do—they’ll have 50 percent of their wages deducted. If they don’t declare, 80 percent of their wages will be deducted. ‘They’re trying to either induce us to strike break or get us to help mitigate the impact of the boycott by telling them early. Even then, you’re giving up a good chunk of your salary,’ explains Jordan.

Alan Bogg, a Professor of Labour Law, believes such a deduction could be unlawful. ‘The proportion of the deduction bears absolutely no relation to the work that is being performed under the contract or the potential losses to universities,’ he tells Tribune. ‘The level of payment must reflect the work being done. Whether you disclose in advance is actually irrelevant to the basis of what the calculation should be.’ Deductions in general could constitute a violation of article eleven of the European Convention on Human Rights. 

‘People are really scared,’ says Jordan. ‘We’re having very frank conversations about people’s ability to do it.’ But there’s a great deal of anger, too—an anger that has made many more determined to fight back. ‘It feels very punitive. It’s really made people lose faith.’ Karl, a lecturer on various forms of contract at Queen Margaret University for over ten years, is one of many university staff facing a 100 percent wage deduction for participating in the marking and assessment boycott.  

He often works above his contracted hours primarily due to marking with increasingly tight turnaround times.  ‘We simply don’t have enough time to do it properly. We’re generally expected to spend maybe 20 to 30 minutes marking an essay.’ There’s little scope, he says, to get through the marking alongside all the other work he’s expected to do. ‘It puts a strain on my home life, in terms of whether or not I’m actually able to take a break or spend time with my family at the weekend.’ 

It’s one of many reasons he’s found life so stressful and taken part in the dispute. That stress has been exacerbated by his employer’s threats. ‘Any shred of goodwill towards senior management has evaporated.’ 

The deductions are particularly damaging for many of Karl’s colleagues who’ve been feeling the pinch. ‘Colleagues tell me they are concerned about whether or not they’re going to pay their bills and rent.’  Many at Queen Margaret’s University have families and various forms of childcare that need to be covered. ‘A lot of people have been here for a very long time. 20, 25 years. They’ve never seen this kind of behaviour from the institution. It’s making many people question whether they want to stay here or not, whether they’d be better off in a more secure form of employment somewhere else.’ 

Such behaviour from universities is not unprecedented. UCU members at Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL) engaged in a marking boycott were threatened with the closure of the Film Studies degree programme entirely in July last year. In an email sent to staff, Principal Colin Bailey said that QMUL ‘can’t take new students onto programmes where staff refuse to deliver the promised education.’ The university also withheld 100 percent of 21 days’ worth of wages for staff who had engaged in the marking boycott. ‘That was one institution where staff worried about how they would pay their bills and rent. But they had a well-organised campaign and fought back.’ explains Jessica. 

Staff organised alongside the local community and the wider labour movement, applying pressure on the institution and eventually winning concessions—so much so that the University is not making any deductions this year. The University changed tact precisely because it faced massive backlash and significant reputational damage. It’s a blueprint for how staff can fight back and win.  

Staff like Karl are already fighting back. His UCU branch has called local strike action, with three and a half weeks of strikes from 12th May to 2nd June. Alongside local actions, the UCU is fundraising to support students being penalised and naming and shaming university managers who’ve pursued such a path. 

Make-or-Break

I put to Jessica the common criticism that students’ education appears to be collateral in this fierce fight. But Jessica stresses it is in students’ interests to support staff, and many do. ‘Our working conditions are their learning conditions. The more stressed we are, the more overloaded we are with work, the worse the experiences for students.’ 

Jessica has noticed more and more of her colleagues getting signed off from work because of depression, stress and anxiety. While unbearable workloads and pay cuts are a part of it, the punitive environment where bosses penalise workers exacerbates the situation. 

Universities are playing fast and loose with students’ education as staff threatened with 100 percent deductions consider withdrawing from 100 percent of their other tasks, which include many critical student-facing roles such as dissertation supervision. 

Karl concurs with Jessica. ‘They say there’s a duty of care we have to our students, but there’s a duty of care that management have to staff as well.’ He believes students have an important part to play and can be powerful allies in the fight to safeguard education. ‘They’re in a strong position to make complaints or to lobby senior management to make the changes required.’ 

Jessica is confident that the marking and assessment will be a relatively short action. ‘It’s in everybody’s interest to get back to the negotiating table,’ she says. But the actions of senior management at a number of universities have, no doubt, poisoned relations between staff and management and left lasting damage. 

She’s determined to fight for better and calls on her union and the wider trade union to resist and challenge these punitive measures by any means necessary, including legal channels and further collective action. ‘Senior managers should know that the repercussions of wage theft will only damage them.’ 

For Jordan, this is a make-or-break moment in the dispute. ‘There can’t be any further escalation. People are tired. People are unwell. And people are not going to accept being bullied on top of that.’ The hope is that the MAB will lead to serious and frank negotiations. 

The punitive measures are having a paradoxical effect. Deductions are galvanising public support for staff, causing lasting reputational damage to universities and have reinvigorated the collective spirit of UCU members. As Jessica says, ‘The more punitive the bosses get, the stronger the union gets. They’re trying to break us— but they’re making us stronger.’ 

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