UCU marking boycott: Management have called our bluff – we have a choice


Management at universities across the country, including Bath Spa, UWE, Oxford Brooks, Bradford University, UEA and Westminster University, have told staff that they intend to dock 100% of their pay if they participate in the marking boycott, due to start on 28 April. Jonathan Neale, university lecturer and UCU committee member at Bath Spa University puts forward the case for taking national strike action in response.

The long running strikes in the universities are at a turning point. It is time to be honest, and serious.

We have had three one day strikes, and three more two hour strikes.

Here’s an odd thing. At the start no one on the first picket line at my university thought those one day strikes would win the dispute. Our union has tried that strategy before, more than once, and we lost each time. But we voted for one day strikes again, and picketed, simply because almost all my colleagues are outraged about what is happening to university education.

No one now has the stomach for more one day strikes, though. The summer term begins at the end of this month. The union strategy was a marking boycott then.

On Friday the university managements called our bluff. They have sent out letters in many universities saying that if you join the marking boycott, they will stop paying you, just as if you were out on strike.

They are saying to us: either you come out on all out strike, or you give in.

We have to be honest. Those are the choices.

A marking boycott is a very individual action. Some of us will not mark, and some will. The defiant ones will lose all their pay. Then either everyone in the union at that university comes out on strike. Or the defiant ones will back down, one by one, and the boycott will crumble.

But strikes in just a few universities will crumble. It will have to be a national strike, or we will lose.

If we lose, the government and the managements will be able to do whatever they want to university education, and to us. We who teach know what they have done, and have some idea of what they will do.

However, we have a problem. Our national union leadership does not want a national all out strike. That is why they have been messing around with tactics they knew would not win.

Many of our colleagues will also be reluctant to strike now. I don’t blame them, given the mess we have got ourselves into, and given our leadership.

But we are serious people. The work we do matters to us. Education matters to us. We have to make an honest and serious choice.

We can give in, with all that defeat will mean over the next months and years. Or we can try to have an all out national strike.

That will be something that has not been seen in this country for many years. We can also ask the students to join us on our picket lines, in their hundreds. And we can ask them to strike too, and close the universities.

I don’t know if our students will do that. Nobody can know, until we ask them, because such a thing is unheard of in this country. I do know that they, like us, are unhappy with what is happening to this country. And if they did join us, the government would give in.

There is one more problem, though. Our union leadership, and especially Sally Hunt, will not want to call an all out strike. To get round this, we need union branch meetings demanding a recall conference and a national strike. But we also need at least a few universities that are prepared to strike first, and call for the rest of others to follow them.

It has been many years since such spreading resistance has happened in Britain. But it did once happen here. It has been happening in other countries a lot recently. It is possible here. The reason is the same feeling that led us to vote for one day strikes we did not think could win. We feel: something must be done.

I respect, and understand, whatever choice you make. But we do have to make a choice. And I think we should try every way we can to have an all out strike. Because if we can defend ourselves, our students, and learning itself, the world will be a better place, and we will feel such joy. And it we fail, we will be proud all our lives that we tried every way we could.


  1. I think this analysis is spot on. HE employers are behaving as FE employers behaved during the contracts dispute in the 1990s. The law allows them to make punitive pay deductions for so called “partial performance”. The only response is to escalate to all out action. As you say this means winning hard arguments in the branches. But to persist with action short of strike when faced with this kind of intimidation will lead to division and demoralisation. The Sally Hunt clique will indeed oppose escalation. They fear using the union’s collective strength and in consequence consistently deceive members into thinking that limited action and skilful negotiation can win a dispute which has its roots in an ideological attack on public provision of HE. However an open and honest debate in the Branches and a recalled sector conference can challenge the dead hand of the so called independent broad left majority on NEC. Solidarity.

  2. Firstly – solidarity with all those members of UCU now faced with the starkest of choices.

    I entirely agree with this measured, clear and honest analysis – and I do so in the full knowledge that this will mean that those in the UCU will effectively be asked to fight first. But I also agree entirely that if you fight and whether you win or lose, you will never regret that battle. Along the way you might also inspire many others to believe that the education we want to see is possible – and beyond that that many other gains are possible too.

    Good luck.


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