External examiners are resigning in a further show of industrial action against proposed pension reforms, potentially threatening upcoming final exams.
The move, designed to cause maximum disruption, could lead to exams being postponed leaving students unable to complete their degrees and graduate on time.
It follows the release of a University and Colleges Union (UCU) statement calling for external examiners to resign from their positions at the 65 universities hit by strike action, including Oxford.
As is common practice, Oxford appoints examiners from other universities to their examination boards to standardise assessments across the country.
Through agreeing to set questions, moderating exam results, and ensuring that assessment procedures are rigorous, Oxford’s guidance documents explain that they ensure “the soundness of the procedures used to reach final agreed marks”.
UCU’s Secretary General, Sally Hunt, said that she hoped the call for resignations would motivate the “universities’ representatives to get back round the table with us as soon as possible to get this dispute resolved,” as “no student or university will want the quality of their degree called into question”.
The Director of the Institute of Classical Studies in London, Greg Woolf, was one of Oxford’s external examiners for upcoming finals, but has now resigned following UCU’s request.
He told Cherwell: “I am really sad to be stepping down as external for taught postgraduate programmes in Ancient History at Oxford, the university where I did my first degree and where I later taught for 8 years.
“I am doing so at the request of UCU as part of its campaign of industrial action to preserve the existing pension scheme that most UK academics, academic librarians, many administrators, archivists, technicians and other support staff are enrolled in.
“The really negative effects of the proposed change are twofold. First there will be a huge reduction of income in retirement for many staff, some of whom may lose half their income in retirement. Second while at the moment they/we have a reasonable idea of what we will retire on, the new scheme is much more risky.
“Worse still it hits younger academics harder than older, junior academics harder than senior and women (on average) harder than men. This is because so much depends on how many years each member contributes, and how big their salaries are.
“I am in my fifties and have a good salary and what I have paid in to date on the old scheme will still give me a good income. Someone who started later than me, or took a career break, or is still on a relatively low salary, will be much less lucky.”
Woolf also stressed that the pension dispute is just one of several grievances which are motivating the ongoing industrial action. “Casualization is a big issue, with a huge amount of teaching in older universities being done by graduates students and others on hourly rates. Many contracts are for 8 or 10 months, so some staff are laid off over the summer. Workloads are high, mental health problems are more and more common (as they are for students). All that has fed the anger many feel.
“All of us are keen to go back to our regular jobs. Not teaching, not participating in departmental life, and not examining is not an easy choice to make.”
“But the strike and other action has had some positive consequences too. Many people find a sense of community and mutual support on the picket lines that they don’t feel in their workplace. Best of all the support we have had from students is fantastic. The NUS has been great, but also we are constantly visited by individual students who take part in demonstrations, argue on our behalf with senior managers, and bring hot drinks when it is really freezing.
“All of us are keen to go back to our regular jobs. Not teaching, not participating in departmental life, and not examining is not an easy choice to make. But Universities UK (UUK) which represents the Vice Chancellors of British universities has given us no choice.”
President of Oxford’s UCU branch, Garrick Taylor, told Cherwell: “No staff member takes this kind of action other than as a last resort and we regret any distress that this causes students, but UUK are now acting contrary to the wishes of Oxford and many other universities and are unnecessarily prolonging the dispute by not finding a solution that recognises that universities are willing to take more risk than was factored into USS’s last valuation. Oxford needs to take a firmer hand with UUK to help bring this dispute to an end.
“The University will have contingency plans for when exams can’t go ahead and these will have to be enacted if the industrial action isn’t averted by UUK offering a solution that can be accepted by all parties.
“We hope for all involved that UUK start listening to staff members and management alike, so this damaging dispute can come to a swift end. We would also like to publicly thank Oxford’s students for the support they have given us, the fantastic solidarity, and warm drinks on the picket line. We’ve also already had students tell us that they will remain fully supportive if assessments are hit but we do hope that this will be over before that happens.”
The resignations come as Oxford staff prepare to return to work on Monday, after 14 days of escalating strike action since Thursday 22 February. Further strikes are also planned to hit the exam and assessment period, with exact dates expected to be announced in the next week.
A spokesperson for the Univerisity said: “On Friday we set up a page for students with FAQs about the strikes and where to go for further information.
“As you will see from the FAQs, we expect all exams to go ahead as scheduled and will put plans in place to ensure they go ahead if necessary.”