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Professors' pay dispute with British universities escalates - as academics threaten to stop marking students' final exams

Lecturers' union UCU is planning to disrupt this term with a series of two-hour walkouts over pay and conditions

Thousands of students will find their lectures and tutorials abandoned in a major escalation of the university lecturers' strike over pay set to start next week.

Members of the University and College Union will stage a series of two-hour walkouts aimed at disrupting teaching throughout the UK university system.

In addition, UCU is threatening an even further escalation if the dispute is not settled by the summer - by refusing to mark students' exams.

Such a move risks making it impossible for students to graduate this autumn, or even get their degree results in time for seeking employment.

The union itself acknowledged that its action was "the largest ongoing disruption of teaching ever undertaken". The first three days of country-wide walkouts will take place on 23 January, 28 January and 28 February. Further walkouts will follow if the dispute is not settled.

At issue is the rejection of a one per cent pay offer by the university employers' which union leaders say would mean their pay falling by 13 per cent in real terms over the past five years.

Lecturers' anger has been fuelled by news earlier this month that UK vice-chancellors received an average eight per cent remuneration rise last year with some now earning pay and perks packages totalling £400,000 or more.

Read more: The academic fat cats: Vice-chancellors at Britain's top universities get £22,000 pay rises – as lecturers are stuck on 1 per cent

Union leaders attacked what they saw as the "hypocrisy of those at the top enjoying huge pay increases but pleading poverty when it comes to paying staff".

"Despite another embarrassing round of revelations about the very handsome pay rises those at the top have enjoyed recently, universities are still refusing to improve a measly one per cent pay offer and are still oblivious to the hypocrisy of their actions," said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU.

"Any kind of disruption is always the last resort but after five years of pay suppression and our members 13 per cent worse off in real terms we have very little option but to escalate our action."

A spokesman for the UCEA, the employers' body, said it had greeted news of the lecturers' escalation with "disappointment".

"This appears a cynical move to cause, in the union's own terms, 'maximum disruption' while 'minimising costs to members'," he added. "Institutions will do their best to protect students but this industrial action is designed to damage the student experience."

It added that lecturers had received a three per dent incremental rise on average as well as the one per cent rise. The incremental rises are awarded as lecturers progress up the profession's pay scale.

Student leaders last night called for a speedy resolution of the dispute.

"It is clear that the continuing pay dispute over the measly offer to staff made by vice-chancellors who have received pay increases of eight per cent now risks causing significant disruption," said Toni Pearce, president of the National Union of Students.

"Students want a speedy resolution. We need to see the employers and unions getting and negotiate a fair and sustainable pay settlement."