Finalists’ futures paralysed by marking boycott limbo 

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In normal years most Durham finalists would now be closing the book of their life at university and looking ahead to new opportunities. This year, that’s been complicated (to say the least) by the marking and assessment boycott, which has put students’ futures on the line.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) claims, astoundingly, that only 2.6% of all graduates are affected by unreturned degrees. Other figures put it at more like one-third of all finalists. UCEA’s disingenuous downplaying of the boycott’s severity is another slap in the face to both students and staff, and hardly bodes well for a resolution to the crisis.

What should have been a day to celebrate the culmination of an intensive three years was a bit of an anticlimax

Finalists have faced years of educational disruption, from the failed A-Level algorithm debacle in 2020 to years of disrupted learning by strikes, online classes, and the mental impact of Covid-19. To add insult to injury, all most of us currently have to show for three or four hard years of toil and stress is a glossy photo from Congregation holding a fake scroll.

What should have been a day to celebrate the culmination of an intensive three years was a bit of an anticlimax. Sitting in Durham Cathedral felt like being in some parallel universe, with the Vice Chancellor congratulating us for all our hard work in the face of ‘adversity’, while studiously avoiding naming the elephant in the room.

Many who applied for further study have spent months stressing over how to meet deadlines for submitting grades to prospective universities, without any final grades to submit. This headache has been compounded by the total lack of clarity from most universities, who seem to treat each new crisis – from how to deal with Covid to how to treat applicants without degrees – as if it’s suddenly emerged out of the blue, not something they’ve had several months to work out.

To make matters worse, despite the boycott affecting 145 UK universities, there’s been no standardised response. Students’ experiences therefore vary: some graduates’ job applications or further study won’t be hindered at all.

But others are hugely disadvantaged, especially amidst rising rents, the skyrocketing cost of living, and a deeply oversaturated job market. Lots of employers, faced with a massive pile of applications, will be happy to chuck those unsupported by a complete degree in the bin.

And some in those Congregation ceremonies might be planning their next steps, but find out that they haven’t passed at all and are due back for resits.

Our collective limbo is also worsened by the fact that, unlike with doctors’ or train workers’ strikes, the employers’ union have no real impetus to fix the problem. The country still functions. News coverage has dried up. The sense of outrage is confined to the small body of people directly affected: staff and students. Who else is listening?

Strike action has severely disrupted the past three academic years. A boycott has been on the cards before. The announcement that UCEA and UCU have returned to negotiations is a welcome one for all students, as is the recent Palatinate article which announced that the University’s pay deductions for striking staff will be paused.

A degree parchment is the reward for years of hard work and something we’ve all done so much to earn

We’re all hoping it will lead to a resolution – but students are frustrated and angry to be caught in the crossfire, punished by authorities who plainly don’t seem bothered. 

The University’s emails sympathising with our situation therefore don’t mean much when (a) they could have avoided this, and (b) it’s taken them this long to even get back to the negotiating table. The fact that UK universities show so little regard for their students’ welfare and futures is a depressing indictment of the current state of higher education.

For international students reliant on the capricious whims of the UK government for their stay in the country, as well as home students with no job security or confirmed plans, the prospect of results in late September – and it could be much later still – is hardly reassuring.

By that point, most of us will be fed up with the waiting game. A degree parchment is the reward for years of hard work and something we’ve all done so much to earn. But months of uncertainty and anxiety, on top of years of a reduced university experience, will almost certainly put a dampener on the eventual release of results.

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