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UK Lecturers Face Devastating Salary Deductions in Marking Boycott: Academics Speak Out

University workers are fighting for job security and fair pay. But docking lecturers’ pay risks worsening industrial action, UCU activist Dr Antonia Dawes writes

Photo: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News

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Over the last year the UK has, with some justification, earned itself the informal moniker of ‘strike island’. Whilst some disputes have recently been resolved, industrial action continues particularly in the education and transport sectors. This has been despite new laws to criminalise the most impactful forms of public protest, and despite plans to curb strike action by mandating minimum service levels for critical industries.

University workers who belong to the University and College Union (UCU) started a Marking and Assessment Boycott on 20th April 2023 to protest against “casualisation” in the sector: essentially, jobs becoming far less secure. This means that all summative marking has stopped in the 145 universities participating across the UK – i.e. the marking that leads to final module grades and, for final year students, the possibility of graduation in September.

In response, some universities have threatened to dock between 20-100% of people’s salaries. These projected penalties are being applied in different ways across the sector. Some workers face losing as much as a full month of pay, whilst others risk losing a few days or weeks of pay.

It is possible that University managers will also seek to mitigate the impact of this boycott by paying external people to mark students’ assessments instead. But professional bodies may well decide not to accept degrees that have not gone through the formal quality standard processes.

Meanwhile an open letter is circulating, addressed to the Chief Executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA), which calls universities to withdraw these deductions and return to the negotiating table.

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Penalties and Threats

Those participating in this industrial action are doing so for similar reasons to everyone else fortunate enough to be represented by a union, although there are some issues that are particularly acute in higher education. Casualisation is a major problem, with around 90,000 members of staff on temporary contracts and doing 20-30 percent of all teaching.

Dr Ben White, who is on a fixed-term contract, has had over £1,500 docked from his wages for taking part in the marking boycott. He told Byline Times: “[Managers] have chosen to treat the boycott of marking and assessment, which in most cases constitutes no more than 10-20% of our workload, as though it were all-out strike action, and have deducted 100% of our pay for participation in the marking boycott. 

“When my May payslip arrived this week, it showed a deduction of more than £1500 from my gross monthly salary. While our union is pulling together, locally and nationally, to support members like me facing these deductions, it is extremely worrying to incur these deductions, given the national economic crisis in the UK and spiralling cost of living.”

He added that the deductions risk making strikes worse, adding: “It has inevitably pushed us back into all-out strike action, since we will not be paid even if we do the 80-90% of our job that is not marking-related. 

“This has further deleterious effects on students…This entirely unnecessary deductions policy, which is being pursued by just a few of the most would-be ‘hardline’ university vice chancellors, is causing untold damage to not only staff wellbeing and morale but also student experience.”

Hannah Bennett is one amongst many casualised university workers who has already started to feel the impact of deductions from the boycott: “As Graduate Teaching Fellows, our contracts are termly, usually with no teaching hours in term three. Marking is our only source of income from the university between April and September. The Marking and Assessment Boycott means that during this period we will not be paid at all.”

Nonetheless, she was clear to explain why she had decided to participate in the action anyway – for greater stability in her work: “After finishing our PhDs, many of us will spend years on fractional contracts, likely with periods of unemployment. This is why the demands of UCU are so important. This has become a sector which is unsustainable unless you are independently wealthy.”


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Battle Gets Bigger

Support has also been forthcoming from student organisations. A member of the student group Liberate KCL told Byline Times: “Management’s threat to steal 50 per cent of our teachers’ wages for taking lawful industrial action is unthinkably cruel during a cost of living crisis. Students and staff are at a breaking point; rising fees and rent have gone hand in hand with the decimation of our teachers’ working conditions and wages. 

“Despite Management’s attempt to silence dissent through this punitive action…student’s and staffs’ resolve to fight for a fairer university remains as strong as ever.”

Whilst some concessions were offered in the last round of negotiations earlier in 2023, union members voted to continue strike action because they need to see a real, material change in their work contracts.

Lucia Pradella, the King’s College London UCU Vice President, explained to Byline Times: “Our Four Fights dispute is vital because it addresses the link between overwork, low pay and inequality.” 

“Reducing overwork and stamping out casualisation will create new job opportunities and reduce downward competition among workers. This is also key to achieving gender equality.”

I work at King’s College London, where we are also involved in a local dispute to achieve an increase in London Weighting Allowance, childcare support for staff, and an equalised paid parental leave at 26 weeks for all genders. We are also seeking to win back our right to vote for a majority of Council members at the university because we want to be represented by a democratic university leadership. 

So far, we’ve achieved some limited support for childcare costs through a deal signed with the private provider Busy Bee. This will entitle people to a 20 percent discount on fees, no enrolment fees, and one week’s free childcare.

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Plans Will Backfire

The threats levied at those participating in the marking boycott are aggressive tactics to try and intimidate us into backing down. Such disproportionate and punitive deductions are probably also illegal.

They do not accurately represent the amount of time actually spent by staff on marking each year, which in some cases is explicitly set out in people’s contracts and varies from person to person.

Universities are proposing to make deductions on the basis that they do not accept ‘partial performance’, but without reducing the corresponding working hours. This would mean that people on the lower pay grades would get paid less than the minimum wage, a figure that is mandatory for work performed. Given the over-representation of women and workers of colour in the lower pay grades such deductions would also be discriminatory.

Regardless of this, legal processes take time and, like everyone else, many university workers are also always only a couple of pay cheques away from financial disaster. This was the stark reality faced by workers at Queen Mary University of London in the summer of 2022.

The Importance of Collective Action

This has been a long struggle, characterised by much pessimism; a feeling that will be grimly familiar to many who are struggling in this country right now. But pessimism can be a useful spur for social struggle. The Italian Marxist, Sebstiano Timpanaro, characterised pessimism as an essential instrument of cognition that the careful strategist needs when facing their enemy. 

There is no doubt that there are risks in taking industrial action, and not all of these risks can be totally mitigated or planned for. In the face of an as yet unclear threat to earnings it takes courage – and a lucid pessimism – to dig deep and start an action like this.

But lucid pessimism is not the same thing as accepting that our current contracts are just the way they are. This is the message that university management has been sending out over the long course of this struggle and it is an ideological position, shaped by collective trauma, that we should view with great caution. The only resolution for this state of feeling must be to respond, ‘but does it really always have to be like this?

Wins are possible. As part of the current UCU dispute, University employers have offered to restore our pensions that were slashed by up to 35 per cent in 2020. Although the language being used is still couched in too much ‘intentionality’ for many people’s taste, the pensions dispute would of course be in a far worse state if our strike action hadn’t brought employers to the bargaining table.

But this is about more than that. It is about political possibility. It is collective – not individual – struggles over worker power and autonomy, and the constitution of workplace democracy, that enable the creation of new and renewed public spaces through which our lives can be reimagined. 

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