HUNDREDS of students in Southampton could graduate late because of a bitter pay dispute.

Staff at both the city’s universities who are members of University and College Union (UCU) could refuse to mark essays or exams from April 28 unless an improved pay deal is agreed.

The move, described by the union as its “ultimate sanction”, could mean that students are left without the final results they need to gain their degree.

Staff could also refuse to take part in examination board meetings or exam preparation discussions and will not communicate any marks to students – actions which could leave hundreds of thousands of students unable to graduate, thereby hampering their ability to find a job.

However, UCU members could incur significant financial loss from the boycott, with many universities likely to impose 100 per cent pay deductions for “partial performance” while exam scripts remain unmarked It would be the first marking boycott since 2006, which led to an above-inflation pay offer, and follows three one-day strikes and three two-hour stoppages by UCU members.

The UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “A marking boycott is the ultimate sanction, but an avoidable one if the employers would negotiate with us.”

A statement from Southampton Solent University said it will seek to “minimise” any disruption to students, and that a particular focus will be on helping final-year students. It confirmed they have the right to withhold the pay of any UCU members who take part in the boycott.

Southampton University said in a statement that it had not had any notification from the UCU of further industrial action – but if it does, it will try to ensure that disruption is minimal.