Students break ranks with NUS over academics' pay dispute

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Students have begun to protest at the industrial action by academics that could see exams hit and undergraduates failing to graduate this summer.

Twenty student leaders from a range of universities around the country have written to Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, to condemn the lecturers' tactics.

This is the first sign of any real dent in the fragile alliance between lecturers and students over the academics' 23 per cent pay claim. At the same time, students at the 94 group of universities, the "small and beautiful" institutions such as Exeter and Sussex, are planning to form their own organisation because they are so fed up with the way that the National Union of Students has made common cause with the lecturers over action that damages students' education.

"It is my opinion that the NUS have not had our best interest at heart with the way they have conducted their response to the strike," says Alain Desmier, outgoing president of the students' guild at Exeter University and the informal organiser for student unions of the 94 group.

In the letter to Sally Hunt, student union leaders from the Russell group, the 94 group and new universities, say that, while they sympathise with the lecturers' claims, they do not agree with their tactics.

"Our primary responsibility is to our members," they say. "We cannot support an action that both creates undue stress for them during this vital time of year and potentially threatens them with the possibility of not graduating at the end of the year. We urge you to reconsider your position and hope that you will recognise that alienating student support may have a significant impact on how future generations of students see their relationship with their lecturers."

The letter has been signed by the student union presidents of Bristol, Nottingham, York, Liverpool, Sheffield, Loughborough, Exeter, Southampton Solent, Bournemouth, Wolverhampton, Worcester, De Montfort and Nottingham Trent universities as well as by the education officers of Newcastle and Kent, and the vice-president of Leicester University.

The president of King's College London student union has also signed, as has the education and welfare officer of UCL's union.

The AUT remains unmoved by this plea. Its action, which is being carried out jointly with Natfhe (the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education) has included a one-day strike and is now affecting exams and assessment. The AUT is boycotting the setting of exams as well as marking; Natfhe is boycotting only the marking of exams, arguing that it is much easier to get degrees out to students, once the dispute is over, if you have already held the exams.

"We completely understand the frustration and the anger among students that this is still going on," says Sally Hunt. "The key thing is that we get it resolved. The boycott of exam-setting is a worrying but effective tool. We have been forced to use the tools that are the most effective for us."

Roger Kline, head of the universities department at Natfhe, who is to challenge Sally Hunt for the general secretary job in the newly merged union, says: "We are very grateful for the support that the NUS has given. We appreciate it is under significant pressure. Our tactic is designed so that if, and when, the dispute ends, all students will get their degrees, albeit late."

The disruption of exams is looking more and more of a possibility as each day passes and there is no resolution to the dispute. University exams start next month. If there is a quick end to the dispute - which looks unlikely - it is difficult to see how they can be held as normal because AUT members have not begun to prepare.

On Tuesday this week another round of informal talks about talks was taking place, but no one was holding their breath. Both sides are stuck on the issue of whether the unions should call off their industrial action while negotiations on the pay claim happen. The employers are insisting that the action be suspended for the duration of negotiations and say that this is normal practice in disputes; the unions refuse.

The impasse enables the AUT to claim that the employers are refusing to meet or talk to them, a claim that is repeated by NUS officials.

Relations between academic unions and employers are characterised by a lack of trust, though there are significant differences between the AUT and Natfhe mentioned only off the record or in whispers. As the two unions are merging, they are supposed to be friends. It would probably be truer to say that relations between the AUT and the employers are poor.

Critics of the AUT argue that its leadership is given to macho-posturing and that it plays fast and loose with the facts. The AUT denies this, saying that it is trying to improve pay and conditions for academics and that it has a special opportunity this year because of top-up fees and a better-than-usual settlement from the Higher Education Funding Council. But there is clear concern on the part of Natfhe that the AUT has no exit strategy - just as it didn't two years ago in its action over the new framework agreement when the TUC was invited in to sort things out.

Moreover, this year the AUT declared a formal dispute before talks with employers began, a course of action that Natfhe has privately criticised as unprofessional. The suspicion is that the AUT did so because it wanted to exert maximum leverage this year and affect the exams.

The big question is how much money the universities really do have this autumn. Some are much better off than others. The new universities are particularly worried about whether they will manage to attract the same number of students as in previous years, given the introduction of top-up fees.

One vice-chancellor of a new university said: "We could have a 10 per cent drop in enrolment so we won't have any extra income from top-up fees. We would certainly have to leave the national pay bargaining arrangements if the Universities and Colleges' Employers' Association settled above 3 to 4 per cent." Another new university in the Midlands is facing an 18 per cent drop in student numbers.

Students at the universities that have protested to Sally Hunt are aware that there is more to the dispute than meets the eye. Bristol students have been especially active. Since the academics' one-day strike in early March, they have sent 1,200 e-mails and 1,000 letters to the local AUT president, Bill Beaumont, to protest at the academics tactics.

"The AUT is undermining many years of close relationship we have had between lecturers and students," says Gaston Dolle, president of Bristol students' union. "Basically the lecturers are saying that our education is not their problem. They are looking after number one and not us."

Like Exeter's student union president, Dolle argues that the National Union of Students does not represent students' views nationally on the dispute. Alain Desmier, of Exeter, says that he will not be supporting any action that puts members' education in jeopardy. "It is my opinion that students around the country are being used as pawns by the AUT and we refuse to stand by and let it happen. Many lecturers at Exeter do not even support the AUT strike and yet the NUS is asking students to back the AUT! The situation is plainly ridiculous."

The plan for a new organisation to act for the interests of the student unions at the 94 group of universities is born of Desmier's frustration with the NUS. It cannot represent his members because it covers such a broad canvas from the smallest sixth-form college with 80 students to Manchester University with 36,000. The interests of the institutions differ too much.

There already exists another organisation, the Aldwych group, representing student unions from the Russell group of universities.

This was set up to oppose top-up fees but has not done much since Desmier would like the new group to campaign on issues such as the minimum number of hours that students should be given by their tutors and lecturers. That is not the kind of thing that the NUS does. He would also like to receive information about the research assessment exercise so that he and his colleagues can argue intelligently with vice-chancellors who are planning to close down departments. As it is, they don't have the professional back-up. Again, this is something that the NUS does not do, he says.

In reply, the NUS says that such issues have not been raised with them before. On the pay dispute, Julian Nickholds, NUS vice- president (education), says that the union does not support all the AUT's tactics, in particular it does not support the boycott of setting exams. But he accepts that the NUS can do more for its individual student unions. "I am happy to speak to both presidents of Exeter and Bristol," he says.

The protest action by individual student unions suggests that students are becoming more assertive and questioning in the run-up to top-up fees. There is talk of law-suits by students affected by the lecturers' action if the dispute is not resolved. And that is why most parties involved are praying that the TUC or Acas will be invited in to make peace.