Leading article: Academics' strike may be patchy

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The Independent Online

Next month, students around the UK will face serious disruption when academics go on strike for a day and begin a campaign of refusing to mark their coursework and organise their exams. The strike takes place on 7 March, followed by an indefinite marking boycott - all in aid of a heated pay dispute. Students at universities containing large proportions of militant academics could find their coursework unmarked, their lectures cancelled and their exams thrown into chaos. Is the action justified?

The answer depends on whom you believe. The university employers say that the industrial action is precipitate and that the two lecturers' unions, the AUT and Natfhe, have rushed into it without talking, having decided a long time ago that they wanted to strike. Both unions are in the process of merging and there is a great deal of jostling for jobs among the senior staff. Whoever can claim to be the most militant in pursuit of a pay claim could win the glittering prizes. Natfhe is feeling particularly sore because its general secretary, Paul Mackney, has had to withdraw from the race due to ill health, which means Sally Hunt is left as a strong contender for the top job. Natfhe feels that it is effectively being taken over by the AUT. This means that both unions have a lot to gain from racheting up the rhetoric and trying to appear more radical than each other.

In public, the unions show a united front. They are saying that the university employers have been refusing to negotiate. Certainly, the unions have a case when it comes to pay. Junior research staff can start on as little as £13,274 a year, and lecturers on £24,352. Academic pay has been falling behind comparable staff for decades, leading to a radicalisation of the workforce. All of which means that academic staff are spoiling for a fight and only too happy to vote for action, go out on strike and stop marking.

The question is, what effect will the action have? According to the employers, the AUT and Natfhe members who voted to strike represent only 11 per cent of academic and related staff. Just 14 per cent voted to boycott marking. This may mean that the action's effect nationally will be patchy. The best that students can hope for is that the two sides get down to some serious talking before too long so that the action does not disrupt their degrees.

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