Doubts on marking boycott impact as v-cs bid to save graduations

Universities seek to win over staff with bonuses and consider subcontracting assessment

May 23, 2022
UCU strike at Goldsmiths, University of London
Source: Eleanor Bentall

UK universities may subcontract marking to help deal with a planned boycott, as vice-chancellors make last-ditch offers to persuade staff not to take part.

Some academics who refuse to set or mark assignments and exams have also been told by their institutions that they may lose 100 per cent of their pay for every day the action – part of long-running disputes over pay, pensions and working conditions – runs.

But, alongside managers‘ attempts to mitigate disruption, internal divisions over tactics within the University and College Union (UCU) and the fact that a lot of marking has already been done meant that it was unclear how effective the boycott would be as it got under way this week.

Only 21 of the 44 branches which secured a mandate in the latest round of ballots are opting to participate in the boycott, with some postponing it. Some branches that were taking part told Times Higher Education that only a small number of staff were expected to join in.

Concerns about losing student support and fatigue among staff after 13 days of strike action already this year were understood to be among the reasons why some have dropped out.

“The proposed marking boycott is not being implemented by all branches with a mandate for it because members are broke and broken. In many institutions much of the marking and assessment will already be done,” said one branch secretary, who asked to remain anonymous.

Roger Seifert, emeritus professor of industrial relations at Wolverhampton University, said a marking boycott has “always been potentially the most effective form of action short of a strike” but “remains problematic” as many staff are not involved and the “burden of action falls on the shoulders of a few”.

Subcontracting marking was reportedly under discussion at Queen Mary University of London, where the boycott began early on 19 May as part of a local dispute over pay deductions for staff taking part in industrial action.

Politics lecturer James Eastwood, chair of the local UCU branch, said managers were considering using Australian higher education consultancy Curio Group to grade essays.

A spokesman for the university did not deny this, saying that the institution will “continue to use a range of measures to mitigate any impacts of the industrial action”. Curio said its work was “commercially sensitive” but stressed “academic quality and standards are extremely important to us and to our partner universities”.

But Dr Eastwood warned that outside staff may not know course content or marking criteria well enough.

“Even if they were highly qualified, which I’m not sure they can guarantee, there would be so many concerns about the implications of bringing in outsiders to mark work,” he said.

Other universities planned to mitigate the disruption by bringing back emergency regulations last used during the pandemic. Although staff at the University of Edinburgh are not participating in the boycott currently, leaders at the institution met last week to discuss possible changes which could be used if necessary, including changing the minimum number of credits a student needs to progress, scrapping a target to give feedback on work within 15 days of submission and changing quoracy levels at board of examiners’ meetings.

The dispute was averted at the last minute at Durham University after the institution offered staff a one-off “thank you payment” of £1,000 each as well as action on other UCU concerns.

The offer also commits Durham and its UCU branch to a joint statement calling for a new valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme pension fund.

This follows similar statements released by Glasgow and Loughborough universities which sought to address concerns with the 2020 valuation that led to cuts in members’ benefits.

UCU has also opted against calling 10 days of strike action which 40 branches voted for, “except in branches that specifically request to take them”. This was “in response to overwhelming feedback from branches”, said general secretary Jo Grady.

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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