The mass resignation threatens to disrupt exam marking in universities this summer when boards meet to discuss challenged marks, with more widespread disruption expected at the start of the next academic year.
External examiners are a crucial part of quality assurance in higher education: each course award requires an external examiner to ensure that an institution’s assessment system is fair and comparable with others.
There are an estimated 20,000 external examiners, who are contracted to sit on exam boards at other universities to review students’ scripts and sign off final marks.
In a letter to the Guardian, signed by a representative group of 50 professors, they say they are resigning as part of industrial action by the University and College Union, which staged a two-day strike this week in protest against a 1.1% pay offer.
A UCU spokesperson said: “We’ve been inundated with calls from members who are resigning from their external examiner posts. It’s now in four figures and we are expecting more to come.”
The union said it was also concerned about both the increasingly insecure nature of employment in universities, with 75,000 staff on casualised contracts, and the continuing gender inequality in pay, with men earning an average 12.6% more than women.
The letter says: “We have resigned because, while as senior academics we believe our role in underpinning the quality of education provided to students is vital, we are all too aware of the unfairness of the current pay policies of our universities and their impact on staff themselves and their students.
“We have watched with sadness the pay of academic and professional staff fall in real terms by 14.5% since 2009; we have seen the numbers of casualised staff proliferate; and seen universities do little or nothing to reduce the shocking gender pay gap despite having a collective surplus of £1.85bn.
“Yet the final straw for many of us is the contention by our employers that the latest final pay offer of 1.1% is ‘at the limits of what can be afforded’ when at the same time we discover that university leaders have themselves received an average pay increase of 6.1%. The blatant hypocrisy of this position is breathtaking.”
John Holford, a professor of adult education at Nottingham University, is among those who took part in the UCU strike on Wednesday and Thursday, and has since resigned from his post as an external examiner at both Warwick and Edinburgh universities.
He said of his actions: “The goodwill has been tested and universities are becoming excessively intransigent in the way that they proceed. If you don’t take action you continue to be taken advantage of.”
The Universities and Colleges Employers Association said on Thursday it was unaware of any mass resignations of external examiners. A spokesperson said the strike action had had minimal impact, with end of year exams going ahead as planned and small numbers on the pickets lines.
The signatories to the letter acknowledged a resignation was “a significant step for any professional” but urged other external examiners to follow suit.
“We love our work as external examiners not least because it brings us into contact with academics from around the country.
“The high quality work we see confirms to us that staff deserve better from institution heads. We have therefore resigned from our external examiner posts and will not be taking up new posts in order to demonstrate that there will be no ‘business as usual’ until we have a commitment from our universities to fair pay in higher education.”
Andrew Samuels, a professor of analytical psychology at Essex University who also resigned as an external examiner, said the climate in universities was “disastrous”.
“Morale is appalling and the pay offer is derisory. Our more junior colleagues are really suffering. This is a way in which the more senior people can make their views felt and heard.”