UCU national has notified a national Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) from 20 April 2023. Since university employers were terrified of this, there is hope that the threat itself will lead to more substantial movement in negotiations. But in case it gets so far that we have to undertake a Marking and Assessment Boycott for a while, we want to demystify what it is, what we will do, and how students can help.

  1. What a marking boycott will affect
  2. How staff will continue to support students
  3. What is in students’ power
  4. What is the purpose of this Marking Boycott?
  5. Stay in touch

What a marking boycott will affect

A marking boycott breaks through the ‘degree certificate factory’ model that university managements subscribe to. Staff and students need university to be about education and intellectual development. A marking boycott delays delivery of grades and graduation:

  • Staff participating in the boycott will temporarily cease marking – students won’t see any marks or feedback from their teachers on QMPlus or MySIS. This is a delay, not a cancellation: when an acceptable offer is negotiated staff can begin marking.  
  • Staff will not participate in exam boards. Exam boards are already in jeopardy because the Principal has alienated External Examiners with his punitive stance. Last year, many resigned in protest. External Examiners are needed to ratify students’ grades (and therefore degrees). The Principal’s actions undermined quality control and risked devaluing the QMUL degree.
  • This may delay graduation and progression.

From experience last summer, management is going to try to sacrifice students’ degrees in an effort to avoid improving staff’s situation. In 2022, tried the following:

  • Demand non-specialist staff mark: management recruited staff to replace markers participating in action; these new markers often had  little knowledge of the module, the topic, let alone the coverage in class, or the requirements set out in class. Students’ marks are supposed to be a reflection of their learning. When staff who have not taught on the module mark students’ work, it undermines the reliability of the degree.
  • Outsource marking altogether. QMUL management last year contemplated paying millions of pounds to Curio, an Australian marking mill. Thanks to a lot of student push-back, they were made to step away from that.
  • Remove Quality Assurances: management did away with a lot of the steps that are needed to ensure the quality of the QMUL degree, just because they had no time or people for them.
  • Focus solely on Finalists and leave first- and second-years in the dark about progression (and the potential need for resits)
  • Give Film finalists a vacuous piece of paper at the graduation ceremony (which they had paid for), just to keep the façade of the degree factory going, without the substance of actual grade. Twenty Film finalists got £500 in compensation, which is effectively an admission that the university’s attempts to mitigate the boycott had not worked.

How staff will continue to support students

This is a marking boycott, not a learning boycott.

  • Staff will support students taking up offers for postgraduate studies. If Admissions Offices require assurance that you have attained the required grade, staff can assure them. If funding bodies require proof of final assessments, staff can provide proof. The UK Higher Education sector knows that disruptions because of the dispute have affected students.  They will be understanding and staff will be communicative.
  • Staff will support students in job applications, writing references and indicating past and projected performance. You can email your tutors and advisors for reference letters, transcripts, etc. 
  • International students on time-sensitive visas will be fully supported. QMUL Global Engagement Office knows there is a strike and boycott and can communicate that.
  • This is a marking boycott, not a learning boycott. Teachers can provide informal feedback on penultimate assignments to support students preparing for their final assignment.

What is in students’ power

Students can change the direction of this dispute. The Senior Executive Team are choosing not to limit disruption. You can convince them to listen to the needs of staff and students and ensure QMUL becomes a fairer working and learning environment. There are several routes you can take:

  • Sign the open letter calling on the Principal to put striking workers’ wages in the students hardship fund
  • Sign the open letter calling on the Senior Executive Team to help settle the dispute for the sake of staff and students, not undermine it.
  • Write to the VP of your Faculty. Let them know you do not want others but your own teachers to mark your assignments. You can write individually or organise a letter or open letter with students in your School, society, or dormitory, or…
  • If it comes to a Marking Boycott and management tries to neutralise the boycott with external markers, students can appeal their grades. Community Solidarity created a helpful guide to do so.

What is the purpose of this Marking Boycott?

As staff and students at QMUL showed recently: collective action works! But that win was only to put an end to the punitive policy that was particular to QMUL and which was poisoning the entire institution through creating division.

This Marking Boycott is a national one. Employers have been doing everything in their power to avert this national Marking Boycott, apart from coming to a sensible solution to the current crisis of Higher Education. They did not want UCU to be able to notify a Marking Boycott, because they know they are now under enormous pressure to give higher education staff better pay and conditions.

We outlined the current problems and the solutions in our blogpost in autumn. The demands still stand. The employers, UCEA, have thus far refused to show any genuine commitment to improve this situation, and resort to vague promises and suggestions that all this has to be sorted locally (while local university managements always say that all this is out of their hands and has to be sorted on a national level). They should commit to actual improvements, such as changes to contracts which would stop universities exploiting young aspiring academics in short-term, fractional, insecure contracts — there are concrete suggestions here. To give you a sense of the impact of current casualisation and workload at QMUL specifically: this is the student-staff ratio development over the past few years:

From: Yusuf Imaad Khan, Academic casualisation across the UK (April 2023): https://www.yusufimaadkhan.com/posts/lseucu_casualisation_yik/

This is unsustainable. It hurts students as well as staff. Yet employers are not yet taking this seriously. (The threat of) a national Marking Boycott should focus their mind.

Stay in touch

There will be further communications to address the particular situation in your School. We will keep you informed by emails and town halls (meetings you can attend to ask any questions, and raise any concerns). We want to keep you in the loop and continue to work with students to build a university that is supportive of everyone.

You can reach out to us to discuss concerns and plans. Reach out to our Student Liaison. Or you can find the QMUL UCU union branch on twitter (@qm_ucu), instagram (@qm_ucu).

QMUL Community Solidarity has a helpful overview of student support and demands, here. You can find them on twitter (​​@qmul_cs), instagram (@qmul_cs), and email (qmulcommunitysolidarity@gmail.com).