Anxiety, frustration, and solidarity: Level 4 Physics vivas cancelled as students share mixed reactions to marking boycott

By Nicole Ireland, and

As the University and College Union (UCU)’s national marking and assessment boycott begins, Durham University has told students to study and submit work as usual. However, it has been revealed that the Department of Physics have chosen to cancel all level 4 Physics vivas impacting students in their fourth year of study.

The viva voce, commonly known as the ‘viva’, is an oral exam taken by level 4 students in which they are assessed on their understanding of the ideas and theories in their work, and to ensure all work is their own. It is conducted at the end of the 4th year research project, with the module itself being worth 50% of the year.

In an email to all level 4 Physics students, the department stated that “As it is highly likely that at least half of the L4 project interviews (‘vivas’) will not take place because of the marking and assessment boycott, we have decided that the fairest approach is to cancel all the L4 vivas. We will not be rescheduling them later.

“This has been a rapidly developing situation and unfortunately, we have not been able to consult students as would be our normal practice, for which we apologise.”

Durham University Physics Department

“Obviously, this means that a component of your marks will be missing. Boards of Examiners have long-established ways of mitigating for missing marks and we will use these to ensure you are not disadvantaged.

“All your other Physics assessments over the coming weeks will happen as planned, so please do attend them as expected. This has been a rapidly developing situation and unfortunately, we have not been able to consult students as would be our normal practice, for which we apologise.”

As the marking boycott begins, Palatinate has been contacted by students about their feelings towards the boycott. Many students who spoke to Palatinate voiced their frustrations over the cost of tuition fees compared to the experience they were having.

A third-year student from Josephine Butler College also spoke about the fact that the marking boycott is just part of their damaged university experience: “I didn’t matriculate (covid), no fieldwork (strikes), and now might not graduate. Fed up”. In their statement to students, the University stated that “Our top priority will be to ensure you will get your marks and degree classification and can carry on with your plans for the future”.

“I didn’t matriculate (covid), no fieldwork (strikes), and now might not graduate. Fed up”

Third Year Student

One finalist from University College said that their “parents had been saving for my education… something that me and my family have relied on for years,” further stating that their experience of strikes has potentially put them off studying a master’s in the future.

Another finalist, from John Snow College, echoed these frustrations, stating their view that, “As an international student, I expected so much more from a ‘1st world country’”. A third-year student from Stephenson College further agreed, stating: “[industrial action] has gone way too far”.

However, the main concern among finalists and students was the impact that the boycott would have on their ability to graduate with their degree classification, with a second year from St. Johns College sharing their anxiety on the impact that the boycott will have on the rest of their degree: “I am deeply concerned about my final grades upon graduation”. The University has stated that “Degree outcomes will not be negatively affected by missing marks”.

A third year Van Mildert student further spoke to Palatinate regarding the potential impact of the boycott on their grades saying they didn’t know how they were “going to make my [masters] offer without marks?”

Another finalist from Stephenson College also felt they would “not get on” to their master’s course due to the fact that it is conditional on them getting a 2:1. Palatinate received many more concerned comments from students with another stating: “I’m worried it will make me lose my master’s program in America as they need the final transcript”. In their email to students, the University stated that “we would like to reassure you that detailed mitigations are in place to minimise disruption and support our students, with a particular focus on finalists and master’s students completing this year”.

“I’m worried it will make me lose my master’s program in America as they need the final transcript”

Finalist Student

A finalist from Trevelyan College also questioned the mitigations that could be put in place, stating, “I don’t understand how this can be mitigated.”

Some students believed that the fault for the boycott lay fully with the University. A student from Hild Bede said, “If the University supported their staff and provided a healthy working environment, we would all be better off and happier”. They continued, “The strikes are a necessity and students should look at the hardships our lecturers face”.

“The strikes are a necessity and students should look at the hardships our lecturers face”

Student from Hild Bede

Additionally, Palatinate has been informed of the University’s internal contingency plans in case the marking boycott isn’t resolved by the Summer. In a document sent to staff, it reads: “Congregation and the conferral of awards typically happen at the same time, but are quite distinct.

“Congregation is a celebration of student achievement; the conferral of awards is a formal ceremony by which graduands are transformed into graduates and alumnae.”

On this distinction: “If degree results for some graduating students are delayed… Then we would hold a Congregation ceremony for all potentially eligible students”.

The document states: “If at all possible, Congregation should proceed as planned”, although it will have no legal binding and that instead, “degrees would be conferred on eligible students in absentia by extraordinary congregation.”

The document states: “If at all possible, Congregation should proceed as planned”, although it will have no legal binding and that instead, “degrees would be conferred on eligible students in absentia by extraordinary congregation.”

The contingency plans also state that “If results are not known by the end of term, affected students will be kept informed by e-mail of the status of their results” via their University emails, and that “As an interim measure, the University does have existing policies which permit degrees to be awarded (on a classified or unclassified basis) even if not all marks are available” in extreme circumstances.

For undergraduate outcomes that are relevant for postgraduate applicants, the document says: “A delay in the publication of undergraduate degree results at this, or other UK universities, will affect students holding conditional offers of a place for postgraduate study, and adversely affect student recruitment.

“Admissions staff will be advised that in the absence of definitive information about degree outcomes for students of this, or other UK universities affected by the industrial action, they should make a judgement on the basis of the available evidence and grant concessions to admit students who are holding a conditional offer, even if they have not demonstrated that they have met the conditions of their offer”.

“A delay in the publication of undergraduate degree results at this, or other UK universities, will affect students holding conditional offers of a place for postgraduate study, and adversely affect student recruitment”

Durham University Internal Documents

Palatinate recently contacted the UCU for a comment regarding student worries as a consequence of the marking boycott. Jo Grady, University and College Union general secretary, said: “Our members want to thank the vast majority of students who support staff fighting for decent pay and working conditions.

“It’s important to recognise that the fault for ongoing disruption lies squarely at the feet of vice-chancellors who refuse to use universities’ vast wealth to make long overdue improvements to staff pay and conditions.”

Ms. Grady continued, “Students realise that when staff are overworked and underpaid it hurts them. We do not want this disruption to go on any longer than it needs to, but the status quo cannot continue. We urge students to contact their vice- chancellor and tell them to get back around the table with a fair offer”.

“It’s important to recognise that the fault for ongoing disruption lies squarely at the feet of vice-chancellors who refuse to use universities’ vast wealth to make long overdue improvements to staff pay and conditions.”

Jo Grady, UCU General Secretary

The Durham branch of the UCU also gave a statement to Palatinate. Dr Jon Warren, Durham UCU Vice-President (on behalf of the DUCU Committee) said: “Last week UCU announced that a Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) will begin on 20th April 2023. This follows the results of the national ballot in which the majority of UCU members indicated willingness to continue with industrial action.

“This is the latest action in our disputes with the employer on pay, casualisation, workload, equality issues and pensions. This means that from 20th April, UCU members will not be undertaking any duties which relate to any form of summative assessment, or activities which facilitate the summative assessment process such as administration of marks or the organisation of exam boards.

“Durham UCU (DUCU) regrets that this action is required: however, the lack of progress in our disputes, particularly in relation to the Four Fights (Casualisation, Pay, Workload and Equalities), with the employer, have left us with no alternative. We very much hope that the employers will engage positively with UCU at a national level to find solutions to the dispute before the MAB begins.

“Durham UCU regrets that this action is required: however, the lack of progress in our disputes, particularly in relation to the Four Fights (Casualisation, Pay, Workload and Equalities), with the employer, have left us with no alternative”

Dr Jon Warren, dUCU Vice-President

“We recall that Durham University as an employer took a leading role in ongoing attempts to resolve the USS pensions dispute through the joint statement we agreed to avoid last year’s MAB. We hope Durham will again lead the way in conversations with other employers and employer bodies to find acceptable solutions to pay erosion, pay inequalities, casualisation, and excessive workloads.

“Fixing these problems in our sector will benefit staff and students alike. It will sustainably allow for adequate and sustainable staffing of academic and professional roles with diverse and securely employed staff who have adequate paid time to serve students and academia well.”

A spokesperson for Durham University said: “We are committed to doing absolutely everything we can to minimise the impact of the boycott on our students. Our top priority is to protect their learning and ensure they can continue with their education or plans for the future.

“We are committed to doing absolutely everything we can to minimise the impact of the boycott on our students”

Durham University Spokesperson

“We will uphold the quality standards of a degree from Durham and will not allow these to be compromised. If marks or assessments are affected, we will take appropriate action to allow progression to the next level of study and ensure students can graduate.

“Students can expect to receive further updates by email during the coming weeks. In the meantime, it is important that they continue to submit assessments as required and continue to prepare for their exams. “Our libraries and study spaces remain open. Wellbeing and support services are also available for any students who need to access them.”

Image: Tim Packer

2 thoughts on “Anxiety, frustration, and solidarity: Level 4 Physics vivas cancelled as students share mixed reactions to marking boycott

  • If you want to use titles consistently, Ms. Grady should be Dr Grady.

    Reply
  • The University’s statement that ‘congregation and the conferring of degrees … are quite distinct’ is disingenuous. I have attended many Congregations across 20 years, and the Chancellor at every one has started proceedings by announcing, ‘This congregation is assembled for the conferring of degrees.’ and has later declared he is formally ‘admitting’ students ‘to the degrees for which they are qualified.’ The idea that congregation is a celebration of achievement, and admitting students to their degrees is something else entirely, and the two just happen to coincide at one event is sophistry at best, likely dreamt up to pretend that congregation can go ahead even if students do not have enough results for them to be admitted to a degree. What ‘achievement’, exactly, is being ‘celebrated’ if not degree awards? The script for the event makes perfectly clear the University’s claim is BS.

    Reply

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