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Reply to open letter 3 May 2023

The message below was sent by the VC to signatories of an open letter sent to him by Professor Helen Smith on 26 April 2023. The text of the open letter can be found at the end of this page.

Response to open letter on marking and assessment boycott

Dear Helen

Thank you for sharing the open letter, and for giving colleagues across the University an opportunity to show their concern. I am writing a quite full response, so I hope you will forgive its length.

Thanks also for the constructive tone in which you wrote the open letter. I see in that an indication that you and your co-signatories want to find a way out of this now very protracted period of industrial conflict. So do I. 

I recognise how hard our colleagues work and the care they give to our students, even during periods of industrial action. I know they are pained – as am I – by how students have been and are caught in the crossfire of industrial action. And I recognise that the prospect of a significant pay deduction for participation in the marking and assessment boycott (MAB) is an awful one.

I know that decision weighs very hard on union members. But we have taken it in the interest of students. The MAB is expressly intended to cause more concern, impact and disruption to students than other forms of industrial action by putting their graduation or progression in doubt. That is a very stark intention which we cannot take lightly.

It is also a deliberate choice by UCU decision-makers. While the union has quite legitimately renewed its mandate for industrial action, it had a choice about whether - after consulting members on the proposed solution to the ‘four fights’ dispute - to go ahead with the MAB or, for example, to return to the ACAS-facilitated discussions where it could wield that mandate in renewed negotiations. But UCU decision-makers chose instead to escalate to the hardest option possible. Other options were open.

The wider context

Before coming back to the options we have, let me set out some wider thoughts. 

The first is to note how much progress has been made in our industrial disputes. The USS dispute is, to all intents and purposes, over. The combination of war in Ukraine and Trussonomics has pushed long-term interest rates from around 1% to around 3%. That increase brings other problems, like higher mortgage rates, but it is good for defined benefit pension schemes. USS now believes - as do UUK and UCU negotiators - that the current, 2023 valuation process will enable the full restoration of benefits. According to USS, it also seems likely that it will bring reduced contributions as well (which, of course, would mean more take-home pay). 

There has also been significant progress on the ‘four fights’. UCEA and UCU negotiators have for the first time ever agreed proposals for a national process to discuss casual contracts, pay gaps and workload (as well as the reform of the pay spine). This was something initially opposed by many universities, though we at York have consistently advocated for such a process. Though the proposed process doesn’t anticipate binding outcomes (and some have criticised it for this), it is a starting point on which both sides can look to build.

My second set of thoughts is on pay. Pay in the sector has not kept pace with inflation, and that has put a hard squeeze on the value of take-home pay. I know that the increases received this year and planned for next year do not fill the gap, and that some colleagues now face financial difficulty. 

Yet what has been offered on pay - 5% for most colleagues from August 2023, with 2% of that advanced for most colleagues to February 2023, supplementing this year's pay rise - is going to be difficult for most universities to afford. 

I know some in the sector, including at York, will be sceptical about that. So let me explain further. 

  • University finances across the sector are under severe pressure. It has long been government policy to underfund research, which has never met its ‘full economic costs’. Over the last couple of years, the same applies to home undergraduate teaching, as the income we receive from fees and grants is eroded by inflation. Across the sector, home undergraduate teaching now costs more to deliver than the income we receive.
  • At the same time, the impact of inflation - which has been at 10% or so for some time now - has added tens of millions of pounds of costs against which we have no equivalent increase in income to offset. This year and next we can expect to see many universities posting operating deficits while working hard to reduce costs. That will be the case here, too.
  • We have often heard there are over £40 billion of ‘reserves’ that might be used to fund higher pay. As this WonkHE piece explains, this is not the case. These ‘reserves’ are, in essence, the sum total value of the buildings and equipment universities have built and purchased in the past. They are not cash assets that can be put into pay.
  • Finally, we are on our own. It is possible that the government might fund higher pay rises in the NHS or schools because they are directly funded by the government. We are not. Universities are autonomous institutions. We are not in the public sector. There will be no government financial support for higher pay in the sector (and in any case, it is not difficult to see that we are not one of the government’s top priorities).

What next?

My conclusion from this is stark. I cannot see the current pay offer increasing, because the great majority of universities cannot afford to increase it, York included. Perhaps, as I have suggested before in my conversations with both our local trade unions and in national-level discussions, the sector could look towards multi-year solutions on pay as a route to medium-term stability. But in the short term, it is not clear to me what the MAB can achieve, except to leave our students exposed even longer to the sector's crossfire. 

So what can we do? As I have written before, the deep drivers of our conflicts have been, on USS, the restrictive rules set out by the Pensions Regulator, and on pay, the systematic under-funding of universities by the government. 

On USS, UUK and UCU have together made clear that we need to keep pressure on the Pensions Regulator, to make sure the gains we will see from the 2023 USS valuation are not lost in future. 

On the underfunding of higher education, we need - as a sector, as employers and trade unions - to make the case for sustainable funding of universities both to the current government and to opposition parties which might enter government after the general election expected next year. 

We are not going to look credible in making that case if we have persistent industrial conflict. That is why I have worked consistently over the last year and more to open up a space in which employers and unions might build a fuller shared conversation. I have had some impact in persuading other university leaders that this is the right option to take. 

I also sense that this approach has positive resonance across our university community here in York. I have said it before on many occasions, but I think we have an opportunity in York to lead the way on this, building on progress we have made locally, to set a different tone, to take a different option that could act as a model for the wider sector.

Can we do this on the marking and assessment boycott? Can we stop facing inwards in conflict, trading boycott and pay deductions, and instead start facing outwards in unity to tackle the source of our problems? Can we at York lead the way in showing there is scope to get employers, unions and their members into a position where there's sufficient trust, and a sufficient sense of shared interests, to work together on shared problems?

This is another and, I think, better option that we could take - and as ever I am happy to engage with trade union representatives and colleagues across the University to discuss how we could do it. 

Best wishes


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This letter was sent to the VC by Professor Helen Smith, and was co-signed by members of staff, students and alumni.

An open letter from staff, students and friends of the University of York

Dear Professor Jeffery

We write to ask you to reconsider the University of York’s decision to deduct 50% of pay from staff who participate in the University and College Union’s Marking and Assessment Boycott.

You are right that a Marking and Assessment Boycott is an extraordinary step. But it is not unprecedented at York. UCU members at York participated in marking and assessment boycotts in 2006 and 2014. We came through them with a renewed sense of our collective commitment to our students and – as soon as the boycotts were lifted – we worked together with purpose and dedication to ensure every student progressed or graduated on time. 

The point of industrial action is to demonstrate how much employees’ labour matters. Nothing shows how much the work of university staff matters as much as the progression and graduation each year of thousands of fantastic students.

We know you appreciate how much University of York staff give to the institution and to our students. We know that you are painfully aware that many staff routinely work well beyond their contracted hours in order to support our students and fulfil our academic and social mission. A 50% deduction in salary is in no way proportionate to the time staff spend on marking, nor does it recognise the very significant hours staff regularly put in over and above the standard working week.

You have emphasised the need to be clear about the potential impact of the Marking and Assessment Boycott on students. We also have to be clear about the real impact of this deduction on staff. If we go through with this policy, there will be members of staff who will not be able to pay their rent, household bills, mortgages, childcare or other caring costs.

The impact of the pay deductions, and of attempts to reallocate marking on an abbreviated timescale, have already had a catastrophic impact on staff goodwill. The signatories of this letter fear we will feel the results of that impact for a long time. Most urgently, we will feel it if the Boycott is lifted: a moment when we will need every scrap of goodwill we can muster.

Students and staff alike will benefit from a humane, proportionate response to the Marking and Assessment Boycott. Please reconsider the decision to slash the pay of hardworking colleagues across the University. Like you, we fervently hope this dispute can be resolved soon. We hope too that we can come out of it with a sense of shared purpose and a collective determination to celebrate the University of York as a place where students and staff can thrive.

Yours sincerely

Professor Helen Smith
Head of Department, English and Related Literature

Contact us

If you're a member of staff taking part in industrial action, please contact HR if you have any questions:

Use this email address for any other enquiries: