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“Choosing to support a marking boycott is not a decision that any academic makes lightly” – Impact speaks to a member of staff about the suspended marking boycott

Impact spoke to a member of staff at the University of Nottingham (UoN) about the marking boycott that has just been suspended. The member of staff wished to remain anonymous but was happy to talk to Impact about the boycott and its effects on students.

Did you support the marking boycott?

I did. I am in favour of action that seeks to defend workers, in this case academics and teaching staff, against sustained attempts to erode the rights they have earned through the labour they provide. Although I support the boycott, as a casualised member of teaching staff who is technically employed via Unitemps, the Union would be unable to provide me with legal protection as the dispute is with the University, not Unitemps. This employment of large numbers of teaching staff through Unitemps is, in my opinion, part of a wider effort to fragment and divide the workforce in order to undermine the effectiveness of industrial action.

How did you feel when you first heard of the proposal that would see your pensions docked?

To be honest, while I was frustrated I wasn’t entirely surprised. As we continue to veer unerringly towards consumerism within and the commodification of Higher Education it is predictable that universities and related bodies such as the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) will seek to prioritise profits at the expense of the working conditions of academics. And, of course, this in turn will have a negative impact on students as the academic workload increases at the same time their just remuneration diminishes.

Do you think it is important that teaching staff support their union and adhere to proposed marking boycotts?

Absolutely. A Union is only effective when it can maintain solidarity among its members and the general public. Ultimately, it is of course up to each individual whether they participate in action such as marking boycotts but the more teaching staff that do so strengthens the cause. And let’s not forget that those who choose to take such action do so in defence not just of their own pensions, in this instance, but also those of their colleagues regardless of whether they support industrial action.

What do you think the impact of marking boycotts is for students?

I completely sympathise with students who worry that they won’t graduate on time if their essays, exams and dissertations aren’t marked on time, which could potentially impact their immediate career prospects, or that they won’t be able to get on their year abroad if they can’t provide their grades. I know how hard most students work during their degrees, and we all know they are having to pay a fortune for tuition fees and accommodation these days, so it is hugely regrettable that the punitive and unilateral action of the USS forces the Union to resist in such a way that will impact students.

I hope that students show solidarity with their teaching staff and recognise that we are on the same side

For this reason alone, choosing to support a marking boycott is not a decision that any academic makes lightly. I hope that students show solidarity with their teaching staff and recognise that we are on the same side; we are trying to protect the rights of academics so that we can provide the level of teaching and overall “student experience” that students deserve. As the Leeds University and College Union (UCU) branch has already noted, “the student’s complaint is with the institution for causing [these] circumstances”.

Do you think that the proposed boycott has been successful in its aim to bring about negotiations?

I would say yes. I know that there are some within the Union who make the quite legitimate claim that the UCU should exploit this moment of disunity among institutions to press our cause further but I personally think that bringing the USS to the negotiation table less than two weeks after the marking boycott began is a good thing. Moreover, the boycott has not been cancelled, only postponed. We reserve the right to resume the boycott in January if a satisfactory agreement is not reached. I am particularly pleased that this will minimise the level of disruption for students; it will also hopefully generate further support for our position among students as it shows that we are happy to negotiate where possible and that it is USS intransigence that will cause the boycott if it goes ahead. Of course, although I am a member I don’t speak for the Union as a whole and, perhaps more importantly, the question now is whether the USS will engage in meaningful negotiations with the UCU.

Finally, the SU proposed a referendum regarding whether the SU should support or oppose marking boycotts within this university. It did not receive enough votes to become policy. Do you think the SU or students should have any say in whether marking boycotts go ahead, or do you think it is primarily a staff matter?

This is a really interesting question, especially considering the impact that marking boycotts have on students. However, all workers have the legal and moral right to organise through their Union and withhold their labour if their working conditions and the remuneration they receive come under attack; this is ultimately therefore an issue for the UCU and its members. It is also important to remember that this is a national dispute and there has been widespread support for the marking boycott among students and their unions across the country.

Like I said, academics and students are on the same side so it is vital for our cause that we seek student support

I think the most important thing here is to ensure that communication between the UCU, academics and students is as open and transparent as possible so that students are kept well informed about all developments. Academics can help foster support among students by taking the time to explain the reasons behind the marking boycott. Like I said, academics and students are on the same side so it is vital for our cause that we seek student support and encourage them to aim their frustration at those responsible for creating this situation in the first place – the USS and management that imposed unnecessary and unfair changes to the pension scheme of academics and teaching staff.

Beth Rowland

Image: The Guardian Careers

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