Leading article: A history lesson for universities

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The Independent Online

The one ray of hope in the lecturers' pay dispute is that the two sides are still talking. The unions and university employers were meeting as we went to press to explore whether there were any avenues open to resolve the dispute. The prospects do not look rosy - at least until the unions' conferences and the merger of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe) are out of the way. Even then, there will be competition between the two top dogs of the unions, Sally Hunt of the AUT and Roger Kline of Natfhe, to see who can more successfully capitalise on the militant mood of the academic troops. The election for the new general secretary of the merged union will take place later this year and the atmosphere will remain febrile until then.

Meanwhile, what of the poor students caught in the middle? Students who feel that their prospects of getting a degree, or a good degree, have been damaged will certainly be able to seek recourse through the law. They might well have a case for a refund of all or part of their tuition fees. They might be able to claim compensation for the loss of a job offer or a place on a further course where the offer is withdrawn because the student cannot show they have achieved the necessary qualification.

In the longer run, the universities should be worried about the effect that the lecturers' boycott of assessment and exams will have on the system as a whole. Will overseas students be deterred from coming to these shores? Just as important, how will the universities cope with the aftermath of the boycott when the action is lifted? Will they be able to set and mark all those exams in a very short space of time without the system imploding?

The story of Thames Valley University is instructive here. In the 1990s, it was accused of deliberately dumbing down standards to pass students. The vice-chancellor had to resign and the university was, in effect, put into special measures. The chaos began with a Natfhe boycott of assessment and exams, which lasted for most of a year. When a settlement was finally reached, the marks flooded in and the systems could not cope. They literally fell apart. Let us hope that such a catastrophe does not happen again on a bigger scale.