Cambridge University chief calls for talks as union warns of 'national degree scandal'

King's College Chapel, University of Cambridge.
Credit: PA
Cambridge students face a delay in getting their degrees. Credit: PA

The leader of the University of Cambridge has called for negotiations over staff pay to restart "urgently" to stop students facing graduation delays because of a marking boycott.

ITV News Anglia reported on Friday that students at the historic university face the prospect of leaving without a degree or a graduation ceremony because of the deadlock between employers and a teaching union.

The dispute should be “resolved as quickly as possible” so that students have their exams marked on time, said Dr Anthony Freeling, acting vice-chancellor at Cambridge University, and Michael Abberton, president of the University and College Union (UCU) Cambridge branch.

Members of the UCU began the boycott at 145 universities across the UK in an ongoing dispute over staff’s pay and working conditions on 20 April.

The union has said the boycott, which has been in place for more than a month, will continue until employers make an improved offer.

The acting vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge and the union’s Cambridge branch have called on the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) to return to the negotiating table with the UCU “to reach an agreed settlement” for the sake of students who face graduation delays.

The UCU is calling on universities to follow Cambridge’s lead as it warned that “a national degree scandal” could take place if a resolution is not found.

But the UCEA has said previously that participation by academics in the union’s industrial action has been “isolated” and the impact has been “low”.

Cambridge University students Lucy, Bella and Harvey do not know if they will graduate. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The joint statement from Cambridge says: “It is regrettable that the national pay and conditions dispute has reached a point whereby a marking and assessment boycott has been called.

“Very sadly, and as things stand, it is likely to have a significant impact on students at Cambridge, and across the country.

“This cohort of students have already been hit especially hard by the pandemic; now, many are facing the likelihood that the completion of their degrees and their graduation may be delayed.

“The boycott also means that some international students may not be able to apply for post-study graduate visas on completion of their course.

“No-one wants students to suffer further, and we are deeply sympathetic to the strength of feeling in our student body. For many, including staff, this is a stressful and anxious time.”

It adds: “We therefore call for negotiations between UCEA and UCU to restart to reach an agreed settlement. This needs to happen urgently, for the sake of our students, staff and members.”

The move comes after university students in the UK have voiced fears that their degrees will be “devalued” and their graduations will be delayed due to the marking and assessment boycott.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, called the statement from the Cambridge leader a “hugely significant moment” in the ongoing dispute.

She said: “Rightly, Cambridge can see that the only way to find a resolution so students can progress is by getting back around the negotiating table.

“If UCEA fails to listen to universities like Cambridge, a national degree scandal is coming around the corner. It’s time to get serious, and fast.

“Other universities now need to follow Cambridge’s lead, show that they care about their students and call on UCEA to re-enter negotiations and end the dispute.”

In a letter to the UCU and other unions on May 11, the UCEA said it had a “strong desire to begin constructive dialogue with the trade unions on the basis of the Acas terms of reference” if the marking boycott was called off.

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the UCEA, said: “The ball is in UCU’s court and we are sat at the negotiating table, waiting for UCU and the other trade unions to join us and discuss the important pay-related issues, as agreed in the Acas-facilitated agreed terms of reference.”

He added: “UCEA has not withdrawn from negotiations.”

Mr Jethwa called on the UCU to “carefully consider students and members” at its annual Congress in Glasgow this weekend as he said it “looks to be a last chance for an agreed solution to return to the table.”

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