Letter to VC Koen Lamberts on the Marking and Assessment Boycott, 23/05/23

Dear Koen,

I am writing on behalf of the Sheffield UCU Committee, and all University of Sheffield staff within our bargaining group, regarding the UK-wide dispute on pay and conditions which is the source of the current boycott of marking and assessment work by many staff at the University of Sheffield. Below I raise two areas of concern, and we would welcome the chance to meet with you at your earliest convenience to discuss them further.

We have been extremely disappointed in the approach that the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) have adopted in this dispute, including their misuse of HESA data on sector finances. In a press release on 3 May, UCEA cites a sectoral deficit, despite the report it is based on warning that it “is not reflective of the pure underlying financial performance of these institutions for this year”. Instead, as you will be aware, this artefact is caused by a pension adjustment including the demonstrably unrepresentative 2020 USS valuation; absent this paper cost, the sector has yet again posted a sizeable surplus. I’m sure we both agree that these are increasingly difficult times in Higher Education, and it’s crucial for the future of the sector that we find a way to resolve the source of the conflict, for the benefit of all. However, such a misrepresentation of data serves neither staff nor employers, and it stands as an active impediment to ending the ongoing dispute.

Secondly, reaching a healthy resolution is not possible without the resumption of negotiations, which UCEA have continued to refuse, even as recently as Friday, 19 May. There is still time to bring this dispute to a close and avoid major disruptions to students’ graduation and progression, but every day that UCEA makes the active choice to delay makes it less likely that this will be possible.

While this dispute cannot be resolved by negotiation in Sheffield alone, that does not mean that we have no impact on the wider dispute. As a member of UCEA, we ask you to exercise your position as a member to ask them to both cease their public misrepresentation of sector finances and to return to the negotiation table. Just recently, the Universities of Glasgow and Cambridge have made joint public statements calling for the resumption of negotiations, and we are aware of ongoing work at several other universities which may lead to similar statements. We would be very interested in working with you on a similar joint statement, and it would be a reflection of the leadership that this university exercises in our sector.

At a local level, we are very disappointed that the energy of University leadership seems to be focused predominantly on circumventing and mitigating the marking and assessment boycott, rather than on trying to bring the overall dispute to a close.

Our colleagues are rightly standing up for principles of fairness in their employment contracts, and the University’s position on partial performance could lead to significant financial distress by locking them out of their jobs for an extended period, in some cases on the basis of just a few hours of uncompleted work. Further, it seems clear to us that the threat to lock people out of their jobs until a pre-specified date, even where there is no marking and assessment work left for them to carry out, has no basis in law, and we ask that you withdraw your stated intention to do so at the earliest opportunity. Lastly, the recently announced decision to pursue 100% deductions from staff who are not themselves participating in the boycott, but refuse to take on additional marking, is punitive, and may have unintended consequences.

The decisions taken here do not just exist in isolation for the current dispute, they have substantial ramifications for the health and industrial relations of our university moving forwards.

I look forward to hearing from you, and we would welcome the opportunity to discuss the situation with you to seek progress.


Robyn Orfitelli,

Branch President, on behalf of the Sheffield UCU Committee