By Gary Eason
BBC News Online education editor
A leading university might be forced to cancel exams if the marking boycott by members of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) continues.
University College London is on a fixed exam timetable [UCL photo]
It would mean students would be unable to graduate or progress from one year of their course to the next.
The head of University College London, Prof Malcolm Grant, has told staff that in the worst case the damage "may prove irreversible".
The AUT nationally is in dispute over pay and a proposed salary structure.
Prof Grant's e-mail said: "If student assessment is not undertaken in the coming month it will lead to delays that, so far as I can see, simply cannot be recovered later in the year."
He said: "Academics never lightly engage in activity that harms students. It goes wholly against our vocation."
He had "relatively little knowledge of how far individual colleagues feel committed to the AUT action".
He appealed to them "to think about the bigger picture, about how closely this action relates to the issues that are in dispute, and about the fairness of visiting the consequences of a national dispute on our students at UCL".
Prof Grant said UCL did not own the premises it used for exams - they had had to be booked a year in advance, so the exams could not be delayed.
"So there is a rapidly growing risk that we shall be forced to cancel examinations in some departments.
"This will do enormous damage not only to the students affected, but to UCL's international reputation."
A UCL spokesperson later stressed that the e-mail presented "very much a worst-case scenario" and the "current situation is that there are no plans for UCL to scrap examinations".
"In the event of disruption we will seek to make the necessary contingency plans."
Students' union support
Earlier on Monday, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association wrote to the union, calling its boycott an "unwarranted threat" to students who were being used as "pawns" in the dispute over pay and conditions.
The AUT's general secretary, Sally Hunt, advised students to send their essays to university vice-chancellors for marking.
At UCL, the union has said: "Needless to say we do not lightly engage in activity that harms students.
"The provost's e-mail indicates that he recognises that the action over assessment is beginning to bite."
It had received "many expressions of solidarity from students" and appealed colleagues "to hold their nerve" as, "up and down the country", university staff were facing the same pressures with college managements "extremely worried".
The increasingly bitter dispute is about pay and a new salaries framework for staff across the UK's universities.
The AUT, mainly representing academics in the "old", pre-1992 institutions, held a week of strikes in protest at a pay rise of 6.44% over two years and changes which it says would mean the removal of national pay-bargaining and damage many of its members' salary prospects.
It has now moved on to a boycott of all formal student assessment.
A student at University of Wales, Aberystwyth, wrote to BBC News Online to say: "We have been unable to obtain our marks from the first semester examinations in January (although some provisional results are being released), and several department heads have voiced concerns that if the dispute is not resolved very quickly, our final exams will be under threat.
"This is a huge problem, affecting over a thousand students at Aberystwyth alone."
A spokesperson for the university confirmed that results had been delayed due to the industrial action of the AUT.
"If the action continues for some time the assessment process will be further affected. However, it is premature to comment on the likely effect on graduation at this time," he said.
Officially, the AUT is supported by the National Union of Students.
Some students at UCL and elsewhere around the country are unhappy at the damage being done, however.
At Exeter, the Guild of Students says it respects the AUTs' right to take industrial action but "cannot condone any action that adversely affects students" there.
It believes the NUS' stance "is of detriment to the student body as a whole" and is "seriously considering" its affiliation to the union.
Some parents are wondering whether they can sue universities if their children are affected.
Prof Grant, in his e-mail to staff at UCL, said of the pay agreement: "I believe that what we are proposing is fair to all staff: indeed, I cannot see how we can make further progress for equal opportunities at UCL without such a framework.
"All of the other unions representing staff at UCL, who also initially held similar doubts about the new framework, have now reached agreement."
Nationally another lecturers' union, Natfhe - representing staff in the "new", post-1992 institutions - has recommended that its members accept the proposals.
But the Educational Institute of Scotland, which organises in the new universities north of the border, is balloting its members - on a recommendation not to accept the deal.