The effects of the Marking and Assessment Boycott

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The University and Colleges Union has called for industrial action to be taken for the second time this year, in the form of a marking and assessment boycott (MAB).

The MAB began on April 20 and will continue until called off by the UCU, or at the end of the industrial action mandate of six months, or the demands of the union are met. 

The marking and assessment boycott is nationwide and every member involved in a pay and working conditions dispute with their higher education institution was asked to join. 

All summative marking and any duties associated with assessment are to be withheld, as stipulated by the UCU on its website, this includes exam invigilation, the processing of grades, attending exam boards and PhD vivas. 

The boycott is formally known as an Action Short of a Strike. This was voted on back in March 2023, and passed the ballot with 89.2% of the vote deciding to take this kind of action. 

Image credit: @ucu_stirling.

The UCU National has been attempting to direct anger towards the Vice-Chancellors, rather than participating staff. Its strategy so far has been the emailing of VCs and social media posts of solidarity from students across the country. 

At the University of Stirling, the Students’ Union has come out with statement saying they “are proud to stand by the [UCU]”.

The SU addressed the lack of information given to students regarding the boycott, however, the Students’ Union is as unclear on what’s happening following the MAB as students.

They reiterate their support for lecturers and highlight the importance of knowing why the boycott is happening. Read their whole statement here

Brig reached out to the University to ask what is happening. Focusing on international students who have visas, those hoping to go on exchange semesters next year, and final year undergraduate students. 

A spokesperson for the University mentioned that only a small number of staff are participating in the boycott, despite there being no legal obligation for staff to notify their employer if they are partaking.

“The University is working on a range of mitigation measures to ensure that, where there may be a potential impact on students, any disruption is minimal,” they said.

Little explanation was provided of what these ‘mitigation measures’ will be.

“Areas potentially impacted by this action are introducing mitigation measures at a local level for assessments to be marked,” they continued.

“In any case where this is not possible, mitigations at university level will ensure that students eligible to graduate will do so as planned, and appropriate progression decisions are made for any affected students”. 

International students may be worried about the boycott as communication is very important for their visas as well as scholarships.

A second year international student spoke to Brig on the worries of those “relying on grades for funding as well since the international fee is so extortionate”. The student emphasised how confusing and stressful the situation has become for students.

Video credit: @ucuunion on Instagram.

The spokesperson from the University, however, emphasised that the University does not believe this will “impact students’ ability to graduate, progress onto further study, or study abroad in the next academic year, or affect those with international student visas.”

When asked by Brig about the University’s reputational damage from both current students and internationally, the University did not comment. Nor did it respond when asked about the impact this boycott will have on the academic integrity of the University and the possible effects this is having on the staff that are boycotting. 

There is obvious angst among final year students concerning their graduation dates. Many want to hear more from the University on what will happen including a fourth year student, Ludovico Caminati, who spoke to Brig of his concerns in relation to his upcoming Masters course. 

“My biggest concern is whether we’re going to get the grades for graduation. A lot of others are in the same situation…waiting for grades for Masters.

“For example, I have a conditional offer from the University of Glasgow and …  if I don’t have my grade by September then I won’t be able to start my Masters until next year so this is obviously impacting us a lot.”

Most postgraduate courses require past examination results prior to confirming a students’ place on the course. He went on to explain that despite the anxieties this causes “I understand that this is the last resort…, it’s a really good strategy for them … to put management in a position where they’re going to have to hopefully comply.”

“Workloads are crushing and if we don’t push back now, when will we?”

Lecturers on the reason why they are taking action.

When questioned on what could happen due to the boycott, the University directed Brig to its website for further information. 

For students with visas, the University has stated that continuous submission of assessments will suffice in engaging with your studies for your visa and that it will “ensure that the strike action does not result in a negative impact on students”. 

Lecturers Maria Fotopoulou, Joe Smith and Sarah Wilson spoke to Brig and addressed the possible impact on students and how disrupting students’ progress is one of the last things they want to do. 

They also raised concern that some students may graduate without degree classifications if the University doesn’t “engage meaningfully with trade unions about pay and conditions” and that it was “universities … stopping their own students from graduating”. 

Staff who are participating in the industrial action have no obligation to inform anyone that they are, however, some have been very open about it and informing students as to why they are taking the industrial action. 

In a Canvas notification seen by Brig, one lecturer cautioned that some dissertations may go uncorrected due to the marking and assessment boycott, until the dispute is resolved. 

The lecturer also said that if students want to raise their concerns they should email the Principal, Sir Gerry McCormac, as well as the Chancellor of the University, the Right Honourable Lord Jack McConnell to let them know how it is impacting on their studies and lives.

The Chancellor was, as pointed out in the Canvas notification, the former Students’ Union President so he may be “sympathetic to your concerns”. 

Those taking the industrial action told Brig that balancing the impact on students and colleagues at the University is difficult and quite stressful as the University has reserved the right to deduct staff pay by 100% for participating in the action. 

Maria, Joe and Sarah expressed how for some staff this can mean they will not be able to pay rent and will have real consequences on their lives. 

However, when asked whether it was a hard decision to come to, the UCU members reiterated that this is the time to take industrial action: “Workloads are crushing and if we don’t push back now, when will we? When you think about it like this, it does become an easier decision to make.”

The staff are determined to continue to push for better working conditions and pay as they see no alternative. “The truth is that this is exhausting, both emotionally and financially – and commuting at six in the morning to join the picket line is no easy thing either, but what is the alternative?”

If graduations were to be postponed or cancelled, the damage it would do to the local economy would be huge.

Most hotels and restaurants have many bookings, including the Stirling Court Hotel on campus, which is booked out for the entire week of graduations this summer. If postponed, it would cost the area a lot of money in refunds and staffing cuts. 

An open letter calling on the University to meet the UCU’s demands has over 280 signatures. Most signatures comprise of mostly students express their concern over the situation. A group of students called the Stirling Solidarity Space, writers of the open letter, are also hosting a Scratch Night in efforts to fundraise for the local UCU hardship fund. 

While students await whatever the “mitigation measures” may be from the University, the UCU continues to press the University of Stirling.

Feature image credit: UCU National

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