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UCEA Chair Comments on Marking Boycott are ‘Disgraceful’ and ‘Inhumane’ as Lecturers Struggle During Cost of Living Crisis

Lecturers and students are upset about remarks preferring ‘pain along the way’ over industrial action

Students in Edinburgh. Photo: Iain Masterton/Alamy

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The chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) has been accused of being “disgraceful” and “inhumane” as lecturers struggle to pay rent and put food on the table during the current marking boycott. 

George Boyne, also the principal at the University of Aberdeen, told colleagues he would “prefer pain along the way” as part of a series of messages in a senior management WhatsApp chat on May 10 about staff pay deductions. 

The remarks were uncovered following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by student newspaper The Gaudie.

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) began their boycott on 20 April, and many are refusing to mark university exams and assessments until their employers make an improved offer on pay and conditions.

The boycott was considered “a last resort” by one academic the Byline Times has spoken to who said he was taking a stand for a sector gutted by the impact of austerity and real terms pay cuts since 2010, alongside “rampant casualisation”.

Another lecturer said the pay deductions being made by her employer were “punitive, disproportionate” and amounted to “bullying tactics”. 

The UCU has set up a fighting fund to help those lecturers experiencing financial difficulty, but it also questioned why universities are unable to use the “billions of pounds in reserves” they maintain to fund better terms and conditions, and improve workloads.

Currently, the UCU estimates that surplus to be around £2.2bn from a record income in 2021/22 of £44.6bn.


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Despite many thousands of students facing an uncertain future as a result of the boycott, the National Union of Students (NUS) recently expressed its full support in an open letter to the UCEA that called for it to return to negotiations with the UCU.

“These employment conditions affect the conditions in which students are learning in,” read the letter.

“How can we expect the UK Higher Education (HE) system to be internationally-renowned and provide high-quality support to students, whilst working conditions are being eroded year in, year out?”

‘Pain Along the Way

The quality of teaching and its impact on students was part of the reason why Ben Whitham, a lecturer in international relations at SOAS, is taking part in the boycott. He has lost 100% of his pay in the last month for each day he is part of the boycott, and the university is also refusing to pay his pension contributions. 

He told Byline Times: ”Since the start of austerity in 2010 we’ve taken real terms pay cuts year after year. And then there’s this rampant casualisation that has become a huge problem. We’ve been on strike again and again, but we’re not seeing results and employers seem happy to just let the strikes go ahead.”

Mr Whitham explained that union members believed a boycott might bring more success where the strikes had failed, but said the tactic was “a last resort”.

“You become an academic because you love the teaching, the research and the students. It’s not just a job. But at the same time I’ve got no job security,” he added.

The academic’s fixed-term contract runs out next summer. The UCU has previously called for the end of such contracts, and the use of permanent ones, to give staff stability and continuity of employment.

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Mr Whitham described the recently unearthed comments of the chair of the UCEA as “an attitude that was quite inhumane to take towards your staff and workers in the middle of an unprecedented cost of living crisis”. 

Boyne has since expressed regret for the remarks, and the UCEA was forced to clarify: “The context of Professor Boyne’s remarks make clear his reference to the financial pain associated with pay deductions falling in a single month, in order to avoid the negative consequences for students and staff from the marking and assessment boycott.”

However, Mr Whitham added: “We’re all experiencing some degree of pain because of rising food and energy bills. But it’s also really frustrating as it suggests an unserious attitude towards the negotiations.It sounds like they would rather inflict pain than settle the dispute.”

Julie Canavan, a lecturer in the School of Education at Brighton University, said Mr Boyne’s comments were “disgraceful and quite shocking”.

Ms Canavan also lost 100% of her pay for June, “a punitive measure” she said “as only a few universities are taking this approach”.

Like Mr Whitham, she felt the deductions were disproportionate as she is still doing research, writing, attending meetings and liaising with staff and students. 

She added: “It’s basically bullying, isn’t it? Just bully us into submission, some people obviously can’t afford it as they are below the breadline, but for those of us who might be able to; it makes me really angry. I’m determined to fight them.”

Ms Canavan said she had also been thinking of her colleagues who are struggling, especially single parents, at a time when inflation is making food and essentials more expensive and interest rates continue to rise.

“I can’t bear to think what’s going to happen next. I’ve had to tell my kids that we can’t spend anything anymore because I don’t know when I’m going to be paid,” she added. 

Brighton said its policy states it does not accept partial performance and staff are in breach of their contract by taking part in the marking boycott. As a result, 100% of pay is withheld from the student assessment submission date until the work has been assessed and the marks submitted for consideration by the relevant examination board. 

A University of Brighton spokesperson said: “We are pleased that the overwhelming majority of our students will be graduating as planned in July, and that we have been able to put in place interim arrangements for students whose marks have been delayed by UCU’s marking and assessment boycott.”

SOAS claimed that it suspended its policy of withholding 100% of salary from 10 June and it “continue to keep the position under review”.  

A spokesperson said: “We remain committed to doing everything we can to support our staff, while operating within our finances and continuing to provide world-class education to our students.  In response to the cost-of-living crisis, SOAS implemented the largest pay offer made to higher education staff in 20 years and has brought pay rises forward to give staff the extra support they need now.”

SOAS expressed disappointment at the ongoing industrial action and maintains “that we cannot afford further pay rises at this time”. 

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‘Students Can’t Afford to Wait Any Longer

The NUS told the Byline Times that “the UCEA must listen to the needs of staff and agree to their demands instead of encouraging institutions to cut staff’s pay for rightly standing up for better working conditions”. 

A spokesperson added: “NUS continuously stands in solidarity with the staff out on strike as we know that their working conditions are our learning conditions. PhD students face particularly precarious working conditions and suffer the most from the casualisation of contracts and they are amongst those taking action as a result. 

“Students face the same issues every day: high rents, rising international student fees, and cuts to bursaries, all because of the sector’s marketization of the sector, which causes institutions to prioritise profit over staff and students’ needs.”

The General Secretary of the UCU, Jo Grady, said: “Employers could use the sector’s billions of pounds in reserves to deal with the chronic overwork, low pay and insecure contracts that blight higher education. Instead, they are enforcing brutal pay deductions of up to 100%. Our members will not be bullied, they know that UCU has their back and our fighting fund is supporting them.

“UCEA finally agreed to meet with us on Friday. It is shameful that it has taken thousands upon thousands of students not graduating for employers to do the bare minimum, but now it has agreed to talk, it needs to work with us to resolve the dispute. Students can’t afford to wait any longer.”

The UCEA did not confirm talks had begun again on Friday, but referred Byline Times to an earlier statement from April by chief executive Raj Jethwa. He said: “It is simply untrue that HE employers withholding pay for not fulfilling contracts are ‘threats’ that are ‘aimed at intimidating’. 

“Policies on withholding pay are the opposite: clear and factual, communicated to staff, and aimed at protecting students. HE institutions have a duty to protect their students and so they reject partial performance and – as UCU knows – they are legally entitled to withhold full pay for partial performance of duties.”

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