As you are probably aware, the University and College Union (UCU) have called for a marking and assessment boycott (MAB) to start from April 20th this year. We wanted to give you some information about what this is, why it is taking place and how it can affect you.
We would like to first and foremost tell you that we care about you and your learning conditions, and that is part of why we are doing this. We do not want to disrupt your studies, but Universities have left us with no option other than continued industrial action. We want to continue to put your interest first, as we have tried to do throughout these disputes. This will be a continuously changing situation, and we will continue to communicate with you during this action.
- What is a marking and assessment boycott?
A marking and assessment boycott covers all marking and assessment processes that contribute to summative assessment decisions for students/learners, whether final (i.e. graduation/completion) or interim (i.e. progression decisions). This means that staff taking part in the boycott will not mark, set assessment or contribute in any way to the processing of marks associated with summative assessment at any level. This could result in delays to your graduation or progression on your course.
- Why has UCU called for the marking and assessment boycott?
This is part of ongoing industrial action over pay and working conditions. Unfortunately, negotiations between UCU and employers have not reached agreement over the issues below, forcing us to take this step.
- For over a decade, UK Higher Education (HE) staff have been receiving pay increases below inflation, which means that in real terms we’ve actually had our take home pay decrease over the years. This is particularly significant in the current cost of living crisis, when many colleagues are struggling to make ends meet.
- UK HE is rife with casualisation – this means that many of the people teaching and supporting you through your degrees are on fixed-term or zero-hour contracts. This means that they are continuously stressed over getting enough work to cover their needs, getting a permanent contract or looking for a new job, all of which affects their wellbeing and their ability to support you as well as they would like.
- Workloads in UK HE have increased over the years, with Universities expecting more work than is humanly possible in the number of hours we are contracted to work. This has an impact on both our health and wellbeing, as well as our ability to support you in your studies. Unrealistic workloads mean that some things will inevitably fall through the cracks, and that will have an impact on your learning experience.
- There are significant equality issues within UK HE, in particular exemplified by gender and ethnic minority pay gaps – this means that on average white men are paid more than women and people from ethnic minorities in Universities. This is unacceptable and we are asking for change.
- Do staff want to take part in the marking and assessment boycott? What has been the University’s response?
We would love nothing more than for universities to agree to improve conditions, so that we do not have to take part in the boycott. However, nothing we have done so far has worked to make them listen to their own staff. In fact, Keele’s response to the announcement of the boycott was to threaten staff taking part with a 50% deduction of pay for any day in which we take part, including weekends. This, in a cost-of-living crisis, means one of two things: either Keele does not care for the wellbeing of its staff or they are admitting that we are overworked.
Does this mean they are admitting that we have to work more than 100% of our working hours to complete the work they expect from us, including weekends? Most of us at Keele will have a very small part of our time allocated to assessment, nowhere near 50% – think of all the other things we do, including teaching, research, student support, outreach, administrative duties, and more – yet the University think it is fair to pay us only 50% of our salaries during a time when we’d be expected to carry out any duties not related to assessment. This substantial deduction is particularly difficult to understand when we will be expected to do the marking later, once action stops; effectively, we will likely be fulfilling all of our work duties including completing the marking at a later stage, but nonetheless will only receive 50% of our salaries.
- What does a marking and assessment boycott mean for you? What could happen during a MAB?
- This boycott will have different impact across programmes and levels of study, but it is likely to, at a minimum delay marking and the processing of some marks for many students.
- It is likely that exams will take place without disruption. This is because exams were set before Easter and are organised by the Exams Office, with invigilators who are, for the most part, not UCU members. However, once you sit the exams, if those due to mark them are taking part in the boycott, exams will sit unmarked until action ends.
- If you have coursework assessment due during this time, you will likely be able to submit if it had already been set, but again this will remain unmarked whilst action is taking place if your markers are boycotting. If an assessment had not been set, it may not be set at all.
- While the University has pointed out that it has a major disruption policy that would allow them to recalculate incomplete module marks, the policy only allows this to be done if at least 50% of the work has been done and marked. Additionally, if your course has professional accreditation, this policy cannot supersede that, meaning that in some subjects this policy cannot be applied.
- For those of you at lower levels of study, this boycott may represent a delay in progression decisions – whilst you know you will still be at Keele, you will not know until the actions ends whether you have progressed into the next level of study or if you need to complete re-assessment.
- For those of you in your final year of study, this boycott could impact your graduation. If marks are not there for degree outcomes to be calculated, the University will not be able to award your degrees.
- Who will take part? When will it start? How long will it last?
- Any member of UCU with assessment responsibilities is likely to take part in the marking and assessment boycott. Although the University have stated that they will tell you who will take part, legally staff taking industrial action are not required to tell the University that they are doing so until after they have taken action. This means that the University will not know for a while yet who is taking part in the boycott.
- The boycott was announced from April 20th, but each member of staff can start taking part at any time after that date. This could mean that staff who have continued to mark after April 20th will decide take part in the boycott at a later date.
- There is no current end date for this action – the easiest and fastest way to end it is for universities to make meaningful offers in terms of pay and working conditions.
- How will staff continue to support you?
This is a dispute between staff and senior management, not between staff and students. While some students may be more affected than others, the action is not intended to harm students but to impact university processes.
We will support students taking up offers for postgraduate studies. We will provide letters of recommendations if required. The UK Higher Education sector knows that disruptions because of the dispute have affected students. They will be understanding, and we will be communicative.
We will support students in job applications, writing references and indicating past performance. You can email your academic mentor for reference letters or any other information you may need.
This is a marking boycott, not a learning boycott. We can provide informal feedback, continue to supervise postgraduate dissertations and support students preparing for final assessments.
- What can you do if you have concerns? How can you help bring an end to the boycott?
Students can change the direction of this dispute. The Senior Management Team are choosing not to limit disruption. You can convince them to listen to the needs of staff and students and ensure Keele University becomes a fairer working and learning environment. There are several related routes you can take:
- Contact the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Trevor McMillan, and raise your concerns. Ask him to engage meaningfully with staff to ensure a swift resolution to the current situation. You can do so through this easy tool: https://www.ucu.org.uk/email-your-VC
- You can raise a Notification with the Office for Students (OfS). The OfS is the regulatory body for UK Higher Education and relies on students raising concerns (as well as regular reporting by university governing bodies) to address issues with the student experience. A formal complaint is a lengthy process, but a ‘Notification’ makes OfS aware that the Keele Senior Management Team has, whatever their claims, allowed disruption to students’ education and is jeopardising students’ graduation.
- Keele UCU will set up virtual drop-ins, where members will be available to answer your questions and try to support you through this action. Times and links will follow!
- Contact your KeeleSU or the KPA and ask your representatives to raise your concerns for you.
We are sorry it has come to this and reiterate our concern for your learning experience, whilst you may feel we are doing this to you, we are very much doing it for you, for us and for higher education as a whole.