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Reply to open letter from UoY UCU Executive Committee 10 May 2023

The message below was sent by the VC to the UoY UCU Executive Committee at the University in reply to a letter sent by them on Friday 28 April. The text of their letter can be found at the end of this page.

Response to letter regarding marking and assessment boycott

To the University of York, UCU Executive Committee

Thank you for your letter dated 28 April, which I received on 2 May. 

You will, in the interim, have seen my response to the open letter sent to me by Helen Smith on behalf of many colleagues across the University. 

I will not reproduce in detail comments I made there - except to restate two things: I know that colleagues across the University are pained that students continue to be caught in the crossfire of the protracted disputes the sector has seen; and I know too that the prospect of losing pay for participating in the Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) is very worrying for those affected and has prompted much concern across the University.

So, I should make clear why we have made that decision on pay deductions. This has nothing to do with ‘academic freedom’. Industrial action is a collective action - and it is designed to have a collective impact. It is the significance and consequences of this collective action that we considered when coming to the decision to withhold pay. The potential effect of the MAB is, simply put, to stop students from progressing and graduating. If graduating students are unable to certify their degree grades, some may not be able to take up job offers, some may face problems in taking up post-study visas, and others may miss out on places and funding for further study.

These are stark consequences, timed to have maximum impact at this critical point in the academic year, and affecting a cohort that has already seen so much disruption because of Covid. Given this, we felt we had to respond in a way that protects students from such severe impacts. 

Let me say that this situation - boycott and deductions - is an awful place to end up in. As I have said on many occasions, we as a sector need to work together to break out of the pattern of industrial dispute which has led us here.

And, as I have detailed to UCU branch representatives at York many times over the last couple of years, I have consistently sought to open out conversations on sector industrial relations in ways which I hope build space for wider agreement: 

  • in advocating a ‘no ifs, no buts’ approach to restoring USS benefits, assuming a positive 2023 valuation (which USS is now confident will be the case); 
  • in pressing UUK and USS to push back on the over-caution of the Pensions Regulator, working with the UCU (something again now happening - as colleagues will be able to discuss with the USS Board when it visits the University in May); 
  • in building support within UCEA, amid considerable scepticism, to establish a national framework for discussion of casual contracts, pay gaps and workload; 
  • in making the case to increase the level of pay award for 2023-24 to 5%, and to advance part of that to this February - while I recognise this lags behind inflation, it was again not a straightforward case to make, given the growing financial difficulty universities find themselves in; 
  • and, working through UUK and independently, to build both the case and the relationships that might lead the UK Government in due course to fix the broken system for home undergraduate funding, which has eroded the financial capacity of universities to offer staff the pay rises they deserve. 

As you will also recall, I have repeatedly asked you as representatives of our local UCU branch to work with me in putting forward ideas into the national negotiating context. I do not wish to be a lone York voice on this. Just as I have not simply followed a UCEA/UUK line, that opportunity is open to the York UCU branch too, through or beyond your union networks. 

You asked whether I am with the York UCU Executive Committee or not. I think that is too narrow a question. We are now moving into a situation where everyone at York and across the sector loses: students affected by the boycott; staff losing pay; other staff torn by conflicting loyalties to their students and their colleagues; management and unions across the sector plunging deeper into conflict; and the sector as a whole for exposing itself to more external hostility through its internal differences.

I think we all have to stand back from this and break out of this negative spiral. We have long had a constructive, open dialogue with the York UCU Executive Committee, and I am grateful for the role you have played in that. I think colleagues and students across the University would welcome it if we - management and UCU - would put that to work in ending the MAB at York and moving ahead in cooperation to tackle the long-standing challenges of undergraduate funding and pensions regulation. 

I remain very concerned that the longer we take to build that cooperation in York and nationally, the more we weaken our ability to tackle these systemic issues, and the longer we expose our staff and students to division and stress.

To this end, I will seek every opportunity to maintain our constructive dialogue at York so that we can understand each other’s positions, and hope you will work with me to influence sector negotiations and bring about the fair and sustainable ways forward that will enable the sector to offer the rewards our staff deserve.

I understand you have shared your letter to me with your membership, and I will be grateful if you could also share this response.

Best wishes


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This letter was sent to the VC on Friday 28 April 2023

Dear Vice Chancellor,

We, the UCU Executive Committee at the University of York, write to you with regard to the current Marking and Assessment Boycott.

We note that you received a letter signed by over 800 staff, alumni, and students, which was created by the UCU branch membership. We wish to state clearly that we fully support the message that this letter sends to you and put simply, this can be summarised as 'you are wrong'.

Why are you wrong? We note that point 8 of out University's charter articulates the following principle:

'The University shall uphold and promote academic freedom, and staff engaged in teaching or research or directly supporting it shall have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges.'

We also note that you are very fond of gesturing towards the University's founding principles and saying how they are at the heart of your thinking and actions. We think that your response to the MAB contradicts these claims since it is an assault on academic freedom, including how the work of academics enables degrees to be awarded, the ability of academic staff to undertake research, and the ability of all staff to teach, to support and enable students to undertake their degree programmes.

That you are doing this as part of a campaign to defeat UCU's pay and conditions claims is deplorable. You often state that you are better than other Vice Chancellors and that you are working towards a so-called new conversation that will enable the pay and conditions dispute to be resolved now and into the future, your recent actions show clearly that you are acting as an instrument of UCEA.

In deducting 100% of the pay of staff who undertake legitimate industrial action that is short of a strike, you have made it very clear that you wish to change the industrial landscape in York. We in UCU cannot continue to pursue and promote collegial relationships with you and your management team when it is so clear that your approach is hostile, unfair, and disproportionate.

We therefore demand that, in the interests of natural justice, your own stated position, and the value of your word in this university, as well as in the interests of staff and students and the institution as a whole (of which you should be the custodian), that you change course before the damage your actions are doing becomes irreparable.

As the appointed leader of this institution, Professor Jeffery, you have a clear duty to staff and students, past, present, and future, to do all in your power to stand up for what is right. We have reached a juncture where you are either for or against us and from your current actions, you appear to have chosen the latter path.

We regret that you and your fellow university leaders have brought us to this point by following the approach devised by UCEA, but that is your choice.

We ask that you reply to this public letter at your earliest convenience (we cannot imagine what would be more important at the moment),

Yours regretfully,

The University of York, UCU Executive Committee

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: