Lecturers given two-week ultimatum to settle dispute

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Thousands of university students may be unable to graduate this summer unless their lecturers hand over the marks from their final exams within the next two weeks, university bosses warned yesterday.

The scale of the disruption caused by the increasingly bitter industrial dispute over lecturers' pay - which includes a marking boycott - will emerge within the next two weeks, when the deadline passes for universities to collate students' exam scores prior to graduation, according to the University and Colleges Employers' Association (UCEA). University employers said they hoped that lecturers who were taking industrial action would think again about stopping students from graduating, and hand their marks over to universities.

Members of the AUT and NATFHE unions, which merged yesterday to form the University and College Union (UCU), have been taking industrial action since March, beginning with a one-day strike and including a boycott of marking and assessment. Exams have been cancelled and coursework left unmarked at dozens of universities across Britain.

NATFHE had advised members to follow a "mark and park" strategy - grading students' papers but refusing to release the marks until the dispute was resolved.

Peter Thorpe, a senior advisor at UCEA, said: "There could be lots of lecturers who are supportive of their union's position and say they will not hand in their marks, but at the end of the day they will hand them in so their students can graduate. "Frankly, if there are even one or two students who fail to graduate then that is a problem."

Unions rejected the latest pay offer - 13.1 per cent over three years - this week and warned that strikes could follow. NAFTHE had sought a 23 per cent increase in pay.

But UCEA yesterday insisted that universities could not afford to pay any more. They called on union leaders to suspend the national industrial action which has hit thousands of students across the country and to put the 13.1 per cent offer to their members. Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of UCEA, said: "We have come to the end of the road in the national negotiations.

"We are very clear that we have moved quite a number of times. We really feel that we have done every thing possible to accommodate the unions' requests. There really isn't anything more that is achievable at national level."

She said many universities were already unhappy that the 13.1 per cent offer had been made, saying it was more than they could afford.

Asked whether she would advise universities to try to resolve the dispute locally, Ms Prudence said: "I think there is a point when universities will decide that this dispute is not solvable at a national level."

Earlier, the National Union of Students called on the two sides to resolve the dispute, arguing that it was undergraduates who were suffering. And Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, backed the employers' demand that the union leaders put the latest offer to their members. He said: "I am extremely concerned at the impact of this dispute on students, and I strongly urge the unions to put this to their members."

Universities have warned that graduation ceremonies may not go ahead this summer if the industrial action continues undermining the chances of students finding work. Union leaders have argued that academics' pay levels have fallen significantly behind those of other professions.

'Students being made martyrs'

ALLY ROBSON, of Newcastle University's Student Union: "I do not think that the lecturers are right. They tell us that they have no other option but I find that hard to believe. It is the students who are being made martyrs for a cause they never agreed to suffer for. Whether or not the lecturers have right on their side with the pay claim is irrelevant. Their action could affect students' degrees - that's not a temporary inconvenience, it could be very damaging to their futures."

SUMI HOLLINGWORTH, 25, education researcher at London Metropolitan University: "I definitely support the action. Academic pay is historically low compared with other professions. It is a shame that students are being affected, but I think it is important for them to be taught by motivated lecturers. I think it is important for students to understand the wider issues and be united with their lecturers on this issue."

JOCELYN PRUDENCE, chief executive of the university employers' association UCEA: "We are incredibly disappointed that after hours of negotiations with all seven higher education unions, they have announced that they won't be putting our latest pay offer of 13.1 per cent over three years to their members. We strongly urge AUT and NATFHE to test out the acceptability of the offer with their members. With the extra increases of 3-5 per cent which are already in the pipeline from this August, we believe this is an exceptionally good offer."