Open University staff are undertaking a Marking and Assessment Boycott called by the University and College Union (UCU) as part of national action over pay and working conditions.
As a result of previous action there has been significant progress on restoring staff pensions, which had been slashed on average by 35%, so this dispute is on hold.
However staff are still fighting over our campaigns to restore pay against inflation, for meaningful national bargaining on ending insecure contracts, and for action to address excessive workloads and close the equality pay gaps.
Despite strike action earlier this year, progress has been insufficient. That is why the union has turned to a national Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) in the hopes of getting negotiations back on track.
The Cost of Living Crisis
Between 2009 and the summer of 2022, university staff lost at least 25% of pay against inflation. As prices spiralled over the past year, that gap has just kept growing.
University employers put forward 3% for 22/23 and 5% for most staff in 23/24 with some of it paid early in April 2023. Unfortunately when people look at their household bills and the cost of food, this is completely inadequate.
On the pay-related elements, the terms of reference offered for further negotiation were insufficient. Because of this all five of the national higher education trade unions rejected what was on offer and asked employers to return with something better.
As with other public sector workers such as teachers and health-care workers, pay has fallen dramatically over the last 13+ years. By the start of this academic year, OU staff were working the equivalent of a day per week for free compared to 2009. It’s been estimated that accepting the additional pay cut offered this year and next amounted to permanently working another 55 days of the year unpaid.
The cost of living emergency is not an abstract problem, especially for our lower-paid, insecure and part-time staff. UCU has seen evidence that People Services stocks food pantries in some OU offices because staff (taking advantage of heated buildings to work) can’t afford food.
How Does the MAB Work?
In a MAB, staff observing the action stop all marking and assessment-related tasks including providing marks and processing them through exam boards or module results panels. Like all industrial action in education this has an impact on students, in this case delaying feedback and results. Unlike in a full strike, however, teaching, support and tutorials are not affected.
Before Easter the UCU branch at the OU offered to continue to provide formative feedback without marks on TMAs to students, as was done in previous boycotts, but this was rejected by the University.
At the OU there is an agreement to notify participation in advance and to work together to support students at the end of the MAB. Therefore while other universities are threatening to deduct 50%-100% of salary for each day of the MAB, OU staff have been told they face a rate of 20% regardless of how small the task is that they’ve declined to do.
Across the sector the threats of pay deduction feel unfair and disproportionate to normal marking workload, and this situation seems likely to escalate to full strike action again.
Unfortunately at the time of writing there is little sign that employers wish to return to the negotiating table. What could change this is students demanding a resolution.
Staff Working Conditions Are Student Learning Conditions
The OU has recently made strides in closing the equality gaps and improving job security through a permanent contract for Associate Lecturers. We understand that the OU senior leadership team, unlike some others, does not object to national frameworks on these issues. However workload remains a serious problem that the University has failed to tackle. For example, the normal time allocation at the OU for marking a TMA is 66 minutes but tutors tell us this is often insufficient depending on TMA design. Also module payments for marking use a theoretical drop-out rate rather than the real number of assignments, so in many modules tutors regularly mark without pay.
Nationally four out of five university staff members reported they are struggling with workload and mental health issues have risen as a direct result. In 2022 44% of OU staff reported they were stressed at work and that pressure had increased.
Higher education in the UK is in a crisis because of competition and commercialisation, but as in every sector there is also an obvious need to value staff and pay them properly. Only then can those staff provide the attention, care and support that students deserve.
No one wanted a MAB. Staff can ill-afford to lose more pay on top of strike action, although at our insistence pay deducted because of these disputes will go to the OU Student Support Fund. Now the MAB is happening we hope students will understand the reasons staff felt forced to do this and also know that we will do everything possible to help students catch up once matters are resolved.
If you’re concerned or affected by the MAB, consider asking the OU Vice Chancellor to help get employers back to negotiations: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Caitlin Adams
Branch President, UCU
The Open University
Branch website: http://ucu.open.ac.uk
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*This article represents one side of the ongoing industrial dispute in the Higher Education Sector.