By Joe Harston, Emily Doughty and Daniel Hodgson
There has been significant discontent across Durham University with many students failing to receive all marks from this academic year following the UCU’s marking boycott.
On Twitter, Durham UCU estimated “only 1/3 or so of final-year students have all marks.” In an email to all finalists, Durham University said that 80% of graduates have either their interim or final degree mark.
Through the official Durham UCU Twitter account, staff members said that “senior management has known, for months, there was reasonable chance many students wouldn’t get their degrees. They’ve known for weeks that this was precisely what was going to happen”
Further on in the thread they went on to accuse the University of having “pursued a strategy which was guaranteed to make that issue colossally worse”.
Questions have also been raised over the events at a Board of Examiners meeting, with the University disputing the claims made on the official Durham UCU Twitter account.
The Twitter thread read that “more than half of academics attending a board of examiners for one of Durham’s largest departments, were compelled to walk out of the meeting, in which hundreds of students were being awarded classifications based on incompletely marked modules”
It continued by stating that the “meeting was run in a manner which demonstrated contempt for both previously agreed decisions and basic academic standard” and that “Academics’ duty to fairly judge our students is being knowingly overridden”. This claim has been denied by Durham University.
Durham UCU’s claim has been supported by an academic who told Palatinate that the department in question was the Law School and that many academics walked out due to the action of the Dean of the Law School who used the Chair’s action to award interim degrees for those with only 75% of marks available.
In an email to all students studying Law, Volker Roeben, Dean of Durham Law School disputed the claims of the UCU saying that the portrayal of events “on social media is misleading”.
He went on to say that “Contrary to any claims that have been made, all Board of Examiners have been asked to follow the University’s longstanding regulation that allows for an interim award of a degree based on 75% or more of available marks”
Further in the email, he said that “Some members of staff did not agree with the Board’s approach. These members of staff chose to leave…The University and Durham Law School are not compromising on academic quality and standards”.
However, this confusion was reflected in an interview that Palatinate held with Sol Gamsu when he claimed that the University Senate did not decide on interim degrees and classifications. This led, in his eyes, to disagreements about the power as there were no “clear instructions on teaching matters as the Senate did not vote on any guidance.”
This decision led to two main issues “on the grounds of fairness and if academic standards are being upheld”, going on to say “If some students with dissertations had been put through, would moderations been done differently if all had?”
He also said it was not just UCU members who had issues with the guidance, “That guidance had some problems, not just (raised) from the UCU but some (other) staff members” with members of staff in the meeting feeling like their voices had not been heard, especially with the attendance of members of senior management in those meetings.
On Instagram, the UCU has also raised doubts about whether marks would be returned. When a student asked on Instagram to the University “Will exams/ assessments unmarked now never be marked?” the UCU responded, “Honestly we don’t know. If the uni decides they’d rather just let you not get grades than reopen negotiations, it will go all the way to the 1st of October…and we have to start lectures again on the 2nd”
In an interview with Palatinate, Sol Gamsu called the idea of staff being expected to mark in Autumn “extremely problematic” due to the resumption of teaching in that period.
Also when asked on Instagram “Is it possible that another MAB will be called next year?” the UCU responded stating “It’s always possible (especially if the uni/s find new ways to mess around with your education!) but MAB is absolutely a last resort: we did everything we could to solve this before it got to this point and we’ll always try to avoid ending up back here.”
A Durham University spokesperson said: “Our finalists urgently need to receive their final marks and conclude their degree to be able to move onto the next chapter in their lives. We have asked staff who are members of the UCU and who have chosen to take part in the marking and assessment boycott to prioritise our students and get all final marks in by Friday 14 July.
“The vast majority of Durham’s undergraduate students (around 80%) will at this point graduate with a classified degree or will receive an interim award. A significant minority of students (around 20%) will, at the moment, face delays in receiving all their marks and final classifications.
“The University is working round-the-clock to ensure all undergraduate students, once all marks are in and assessed, receive their degree. Durham undergraduate degrees are heavily weighted towards final examinations and projects, so we are particularly affected by the timing of the boycott.
“The impact of the boycott has been significant in some departments.
“We are taking further steps to ensure that vital work is completed. We continue to update, regularly, our students. We are also offering them a range of pastoral and practical support, including individual support in contacting employers or other higher education institutions on their behalf.
“We fully appreciate how this damaging dispute is affecting many of our students and staff. Throughout this period of industrial action, University senior leaders have engaged intensively, repeatedly and energetically with the UCEA Executive and Board, as well as with fellow universities, as we search for a way forward at the present time and seek longer-term solutions for the pay and conditions of our staff.
“We nevertheless acknowledge that we are part of national collective pay bargaining. Our UCU branch very recently affirmed to us their ongoing commitment to this national approach.
“Last year (2022), when a marking and assessment boycott was imminent, we were able to reach an agreement with our local trade unions to resolve a local dispute. This year is different. This is a national dispute that requires resolution at a national level.
“We remain fully committed to engaging in constructive and forward-looking discussions on our own local level, and to working together to achieve positive outcomes for everyone as far as we possibly can. We have been undertaking a comprehensive programme of work over the last 12 months to address issues of importance to our staff.”
Image: Joe Harston