A SCOTTISH university principal has been panned for saying he wanted staff to feel financial “pain along the way” during a marking and assessment boycott.

Around 60 staff at the University of Aberdeen are involved in industrial action being staged by the University and College Union (UCU) as a result of a dispute over pay and working conditions.

It has now emerged that in WhatsApp messages, principal George Boyne – who is also the chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) involved in the dispute – said he’d “prefer pain along the way” for boycotting staff.

The messages were unearthed via a Freedom of Information request lodged by student newspaper The Gaudie.

Union members are refusing to mark university exams and assessments.The boycott began on April 20 and will continue until employers make an improved offer on pay and conditions, the UCU says.

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On May 10, Professor Boyne asked in a senior management WhatsApp chat: “Will money start coming out of May salaries for MAB [marking and assessment boycott]?”

Debbie Dyker, director of people, responded: “No, nothing will be deducted this week as we were giving them to the last possible date to undertake their marking before we deduct salary…”

Two minutes later, Professor Boyne replied: “Nothing deducted until the end of June? I’d prefer pain along the way- we can return their money if they change their mind and do the marking.”

Dyker then said: “Yes, nothing deducted until June. This is what we have communicated to staff to give them every opportunity to get on and do the marking before it becomes too late.”

Editor of the newspaper Josh Pizzuto-Pomaco told The National even students who did not support the boycott have expressed strong disagreement with Boyne’s comments.

Boyne expressed regret at a recent media briefing, but the local UCU group has demanded he apologise to staff and UCU members across the UK. 

The National: A WhatsApp exchange between George Boyne and Debbie DykerA WhatsApp exchange between George Boyne and Debbie Dyker (Image: Aberdeen University)

Prior to the WhatsApp messages, at the start of April, emails had also been sent by Boyne to Dyker which stated the boycott was ‘horrendous infliction of misery’ and he favoured “immediate withdrawal of pay”.

The day before the action began, he then seemed to roll back saying in another email to Senior Vice-Principal Karl Leydecker: “No actual pay deductions unless they miss the deadline for work to be marked on time for students to progress or graduate. No damage, no deduction.”

The National: An email from George Boyne on April 3 prior to the boycottAn email from George Boyne on April 3 prior to the boycott (Image: Aberdeen University)

Dyker outlined the University's potential options for pay deduction later that morning.
She wrote: “The earliest any pay could be deducted would be the end of May as we would have missed payroll cut off for April. That would give individuals at least 4 weeks to decide if they did not wish to participate, having already indicated they would.'

“I am mindful that if we wait until the final deadline in June when marking must be returned and we then backdate this to 20 April, staff will then have no pay in June and a fraction of pay in July if we are not spreading this out for them. I know that is more of an issue for them having participated in the action but just flagging for awareness.”

Boyne replied: “Their choice to have little or no pay in June; our responsibility to make them aware of that potential consequence.”

Staff received notice of their 50% pay deductions on June 28, back dated to the beginning of the boycott on April 20.

The University of Aberdeen said the language was “unfortunate”.

The National: An email sent by George Boyne regarding June payAn email sent by George Boyne regarding June pay (Image: University of Aberdeen)

Both the university and the UCEA said the context made it clear “this refers to the financial pain associated with pay deductions falling in a single month”.

Pizzuto-Pomaco told The National: “I didn't expect to uncover comments of this nature when we submitted the FOI request.

“Since we broke the story, students have expressed strong disagreement with Professor Boyne's comments. Even those who do not support the marking boycott have told us they disagree with his words.

'The fallout of this remains to be seen, however, it speaks to the vital importance of student media.”

Aberdeen UCU chair Dr Syrithe Pugh, said: “Most staff at Aberdeen are stunned to discover what is said behind closed doors by their Principal, who always claims in public that he cares about their wellbeing.

“The university's absurd response is to point out that the remarks only 'refer to financial pain', as though they expect to be given credit for not employing physical torture. This will not do.

“George Boyne should apologise unreservedly, both to his own staff, and to UCU members across the UK.”

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A UCEA spokesperson said: “The context of Professor Boyne’s remarks make clear his reference to the financial pain associated with pay deductions falling in a single month, in order to avoid the negative consequences for students and staff from the marking and assessment boycott.

“It is wrong for UCU to inflict stress and anxiety on students and not withholding pay would allow UCU's partaking members to target students without challenge or protection.”

A university spokesperson said: “Professor Boyne acknowledges that the language used was unfortunate.

“Throughout the marking and assessment boycott the University remained strongly focused on protecting the interests of our students to ensure that all those due to graduate could do so, and with a classified degree.

“The University took forward arrangements to withhold pay based on 50% salary for those who chose to participate in the boycott which was applied in the June 2023 payroll. This approach was in line with many other universities, while some others withheld pay based on 100% salary.”