This article is more than 1 year old

A ban on “ASOS” isn’t as good for students as you might think

This article is more than 1 year old

Will Green is a history student at the University of Leeds.

Many university students are used to problems with ASOS – late parcels, missing deliveries, and tricky returns.

They’ll need to expand their definition, though – the term has a far broader – and arguably more sinister – relevance to their university experience.

Action Short Of Strike – ASOS for short – refers to industrial action that stops short of full withdrawal of labour – like a refusal to work overtime, or, for example, the marking strike from last summer.

Marking strikes annoyed many students – the disruption last year, which delayed graduations and degree classifications, had a serious knock-on impact – and it seems that support for tutors’ actions is waning.

Perhaps sensing this, universities around the country are preparing to escalate their response. At some universities ASOS will result in a 100% pay cut per day not worked – Action Short Of Strike will essentially result in a full strike penalty for tutors.

Spirit in the sky

Various universities threatened to enforce similar measures over the marking strike last year, but the latest move expands that to encompass other forms of ASOS, representing a serious escalation of a situation that’s hardly a picture of settled industrial relations.

For example, staff members who no longer work overtime – “working to rule” in strike parlance – could now face that 100% pay deduction. Whilst this is legal, it’s not necessarily within the spirit of the law.

The expectation is that since staff are not fully on strike, their employers will display a degree of lenience – although the courts haven’t always seen it this way. The Local Government Association says that “under no circumstances should [pay] deductions be viewed or presented as a penalty for taking industrial action”.’

Deductions are intended to serve as damages for lost working hours – so a marking boycott should hardly attract a 100% pay cut. Yet it’s hard to see how this move by some universities can be anything other than a penalty designed to dissuade lecturers from striking.

In some cases updated rules are actually even more concerning. Some universities threaten that if lecturers don’t make up their lost teaching from strikes – including full strike dates – they could be subjected to that same 100% pay cut, and pay won’t be restored until the undone work is completed:

…the university will deduct 100% of pay… until such activity is delivered.”

The tactic is to split this “activity” into three strands – delivery of lectures and seminars, maintenance of personal tutorials (such as office hours), and a continuation of marking and assessment. On the face of it, this looks good for students, right? No more pesky marking strikes – all teaching delivered, even if not to timetable; and you should even be able to see staff face-to-face – what’s not to like?

Two extremes

Unfortunately, the universities are more cunning than that. When faced with the choice of a full strike and no pay, or ASOS and no pay, staff will evidently choose a full strike – if your employer has refused to engage with you, why not cause them as much disruption as possible when the damage to yourself will remain the same?

Universities know this – the threat of 100% pay cuts isn’t intended to improve matters for students, or to move towards a middle ground. It’s a tactical move to force lecturers to one of two poles – either a total embrace of increasingly unpopular full strikes or a total surrender.

With so much on the line for lecturers – with long-running questions over pay and pensions still not answered – the latter option is unlikely. However, this leaves strikers between a rock and a hard place. Universities can claim they have the best interests of students at heart and the “Marxist lecturers” have rejected a sensible offer, choosing to strike instead. It’s a tactical victory for the universities either way, even if it’s ethically and morally questionable.

The tragedy, in some ways, is that few students have grasped the significance of what is on the surface a profoundly boring phrase, bound to send all but the keenest law undergrads to sleep. The news of the ASOS ban – for that’s what this effectively constitutes – has barely spread within the student world.

Yet it represents a serious escalation of the situation – and demonstrates that some universities, at least, aren’t really all that bothered about staff welfare. The move is a tactical masterstroke and moral failure – a failure of students who would prefer ASOS to a full strike, and a failure of staff who desperately want genuine job security (some lecturers have so little security that they’ve been unable to go on strike, which again treads the line of legality).

It might be the move that brings the strike to a conclusion, but as usual, the thoughts of students and staff are far from the forefront.

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