UCU ends marking boycott: How were students impacted?

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The University and College Union (UCU) announced on 6th September that the marking and assessment boycott (MAB) had ended after almost five months.

The boycott began on 20th April 2023. Participating staff stopped any assessment-related work like marking exams, invigilating, and the processing of marks. 

60% of UCU members, in a national vote of over 18,000 members at the end of August, favoured suspending the MAB “as soon as possible”. Only 40% voted for the MAB to continue until the end of the current mandate, which would have been the end of September.

Students at Durham University will now receive their grades, degree awards, and examination results in mid-November.

In a statement to UCU members, Jo Grady, general secretary, announced: “In line with this motion, today, our union has written to your employers to withdraw the MAB.

“The sacrifice you have made to this action has been immense and has had an enormous impact on our dispute. We have exposed once and for all a sector which would rather try and starve out its staff, undermine the integrity of degrees, and disrupt students’ learning than give you the pay and conditions that you deserve.

Durham students will now receive last academic year’s outstanding marking in November.

“The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) naively believe that not settling during the MAB would mean the end of the dispute. They couldn’t be more wrong. They couldn’t have underestimated you and your union more.

“We will not give up until we have delivered the deal that addresses years of pay cuts, unbearable workloads, rampant casualisation and unacceptable pay inequalities. Our strike action and ballot are a ramping up of this dispute to deliver a victory as soon as possible.”

The “deal” refers to the UCU’s long-term dispute over pay and working conditions against the UCEA. They have demanded the elimination of “precarious employment practices,” action to avoid excessive workloads and unpaid work, and a pay rise of 2% above inflation.

Durham’s local UCU branch has recently made a joint statement with the University where it was announced that the University would seek accreditation from the Living Wage Foundation, and would increase starting wages for Assistant Professor roles from October 2023. 

Marking Efforts

A Durham University spokesperson said that completing outstanding marking is the “highest priority” for the University.

“There is no doubt that the MAB has been very challenging for many and for some of our students this has been an exceptionally difficult period,” they said. “We have written to staff to ask those who were participating in the MAP to complete all outstanding marking as a matter of the highest priority.

“The impact of the MAB is limited to a few academic departments. The vast majority of our students now have their degrees or a guaranteed interim award.

“We continue to offer individual support to every student who is waiting for their final marks.”

durham university

“We continue to offer individual support to every student who is waiting for their final marks. This includes liaising directly with employers and other educational institutions so they are able to progress to the next stage of their lives.”

Durham students can now expect to have received all of their grades by November 2023, with finalists receiving degree awards on 6th November and continuing students on 13th November. 

Speaking to Palatinate, a spokesperson at Durham University has said that “almost all universities have set very similar deadlines” for students receiving marks;“In part because of urgent visa requirements of students so they can remain on their course of further study, but also because home students urgently need final results to remain on programmes of further study or progress with their careers.

“We are accountable to the Office for Students for the quality and standards of our degrees, and have not deviated from the University Handbook which specifies who can and cannot mark. We have only assigned marking in a limited number of cases and always with appropriate expertise in mind.

“Durham degrees are rigorously assessed,” the spokesperson said.

A “recent marking effort by members of staff” was carried out over summer, with some finalists receiving new marks on 29th August. However, a survey of 556 finalists, carried out on Palatinate’s social media profiles, found that only 15% of finalists received new marks,leaving a significant number still without a full degree classification.

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One finalist student, who now has a full transcript, told Palatinate that delays in receiving their results led to them being late in applying for a student visa, saying that “universities, despite on the one hand claiming how sorry they are, remain unreasonably tough on applicants.”

“Even with part-time opportunities – I was trying to register to be a language teacher online as a part-time job but failed, because the website requires a Bachelor’s degree certificate in the process of registration,” they added.

Finalist students without a final degree classification or guaranteed interim award at the end of August were offered a £500 “goodwill payment” by the University – this applied to any finalist student with less than 60 out of 120 credits on an undergraduate course as a result of the MAB.

However, Durham University told students on integrated masters courses that they would not receive a payment because they had a “guaranteed award” of a Bachelor’s degree, even if the Master’s could not yet be awarded. 

“Despite not having been granted a degree, and the guaranteed degree not being the one I have paid £38,000 for, the University believes we shouldn’t have any issues with further study or employment,” a finalist student on an integrated master’s course told Palatinate. They explained that the University had not issued the guaranteed bachelor’s degree whilst they awaited the integrated master’s degree.

A spokesperson from Durham University told Palatinate that a “task force” had been established to offer “individual support” to any student who was withheld in their study, employment, or visa applications due to the MAB: “We have supported a very large number of students through a difficult and uncertain period, so that they can progress to the next stage of their lives. We have had very considerable success with this approach, and urge [students] who are still in need of support to get in touch with strike.action@durham.ac.uk.”

“Despite not having been granted a degree, and the guaranteed degree not being the one I have paid £38,000 for, the University believes we shouldn’t have any issues with further study or employment.”

In regard to some finalists not receiving the goodwill payment, the University said: “The decision by the national University and College Union (UCU to end the marking and assessment boycott (MAB) with immediate effect on Wednesday 6 September was most welcome news for our whole community.

“There is no doubt that the MAB has been very challenging for many and for some of our students this has been an exceptionally difficult period.”

“We have written to staff to ask those who were participating in the MAB to complete all outstanding work as a matter of the highest priority. We have also contacted students and will continue to keep them informed, regularly, on progress, including when they can expect their final marks.

“The impact of the MAB is limited to a few academic departments. The vast majority of our students now have their degrees or a guaranteed interim award.”

Image: Tim Packer

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