30 May 2023

The marking boycott is holding students’ futures to ransom

By Jess Hilton

This year’s university graduates have had a very bumpy ride. First their A-levels were cancelled because of Covid, then learning was forced online and now, for several years, a return to ‘normality’ has been ruined by strikes. It’s little surprise that students are up in arms, as the latest wave of UCU marking boycotts could stop many of them graduating on time. Taken together, it increasingly feels as though chaos and uncertainty have become the new norm in higher education.

To recap, staff involved in the marking boycott are refusing to grade any work submitted from mid-April to the end of September, unless universities give in to demands over pay and working conditions. The boycott coincides with the end of the academic year, meaning dissertations, final papers, and exams all can’t be graded in time for a July graduation. Staff are effectively holding students’ degrees to ransom.

Making post-graduation plans is hard enough when you know you have a degree under your belt. Now admission to graduate schemes, approval for graduate visas and jobs are all at risk. As with all strikes, UCU staff want to create the maximum possible impact, but it feels hugely unfair that students’ futures are being used as collateral.

Staff are asking for a pay rise of RPI + 2%, which amounts to 15.4% – or an increase of over £6,000 on the average lecturers’ salary. And this at a time when university finances are tight and, since they negotiate as a bloc, must find a solution that works for all institutions. One can sympathise with staff who feel they are underpaid and underappreciated, while also feeling that they are not going to get anywhere with demands their employers can’t afford.

Fed up with being a pawn in others’ disputes, some students have taken things into their own hands by starting a campaign called ‘Settle the Dispute’. A demonstration was held at Cambridge this week calling upon UCU and UCEA to get back to the negotiating table and ensure the 1,000 students affected at the university will graduate on time. Around 100,000 nationwide are also seeking legal compensation for lost learning over the pandemic. It seems my generation of students are learning to stand up for themselves. 

Unfortunately, nobody else seems to be rooting for them. The academic governing body at Cambridge recently ruled that no Covid-era ’emergency powers’ (using past assessments to estimate performance) would be used. At Edinburgh, 500 staff signed a letter pressuring the university to not undertake a similar scheme. And as I pointed out last month, even those meant to represent their interests are letting them down. Student unions use tiny numbers of voters to justify claims of campus-wide support and come out in solidarity with those involved in industrial action.

Ultimately, all unions (except student ones) exist to serve the interests of their members. While many are outraged at their tactics, the UCU will continue to hold students’ futures in the balance until some kind of settlement is reached. At the moment, the universities seem to be playing hardball, with some 60 institutions have now threatened staff wage deductions of between 50 and 100% for ‘partial performance’ during the boycott.

Now it looks like a question of who blinks first: the UCU, facing a mixture of public opprobrium possible pay deductions for its members, or the institutions, wary of the long-term consequences for higher education of this chaotic summer. Either way, students hoping to graduate this summer need an answer sooner rather than later.

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Jess Hilton is a Research Intern at the Centre for Policy Studies.