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‘I have zero job prospects now’: students react to the marking boycott

Students are rallying behind UCU members who are refusing to mark dissertations as part of an ongoing industrial dispute with university management

Charlie is currently a third-year politics and international relations student at the University of Bristol. He began writing his dissertation around nine months ago, researching whether a global plastics treaty could help prevent plastic pollution. “I’ve really loved working on it, it’s been so interesting,” he tells Dazed. But all the time and effort Charlie has put into his 10,000-word dissertation now risks being wasted, as a result of the ongoing marking boycott.

As of April 20, members of the University and College Union (UCU) at 145 academic institutions across the UK have been refusing to undertake marking duties and assessment-related work such as exam invigilation or processing marks. This is the latest industrial action taken by university staff, who have been intermittently striking since 2018.

There are two central disputes: the Universities Superannuation Scheme dispute, which centres around unfair pension reforms, and the UCU Rising dispute, which concerns job casualisation, pay inequality, falling pay, and increased workload. The marking boycott is part of the UCU Rising dispute and is set to last until September 2023, unless the dispute is settled before then.

When Charlie went directly to the university for guidance, they were unhelpful. “I asked them, ‘am I going to graduate?’ and they said, ‘yes, absolutely, you’ll graduate in August’,” he explains. But when Charlie asked how this would work and whether his unmarked dissertation and coursework would be factored into his final, overall degree classification, the university was unable to give a clear answer.

The uncertainty has been weighing on Charlie’s mind. “It’s been hugely stressful and anxiety-inducing. I have zero job prospects now and I’m coming out of uni with £45,000 pounds worth of debt, due to my maintenance loan and my tuition fees,” he says. “I’m staring down the barrel at a situation where I have all this debt and I don’t even have a degree to show for it.” He adds that he feels students unaffected by the boycott will now have an unfair advantage over those who are impacted, when it comes to applying for jobs or postgraduate courses.

The marking boycott made headlines last week largely thanks to Ollie Lewis, politics student and news editor at the Tab Edinburgh, who recently published a report on the boycott and posted a detailed Twitter thread on the issue. The thread has since amassed over 11,000 likes, with Ollie’s reporting being picked up by the BBC. “I expected people to be fairly shocked, but I certainly didn't expect millions of views!” Ollie says, remarking on the reaction to his reporting. “To me, it highlights that so many people who aren’t involved with universities in the UK just aren’t aware of the huge challenges we’re facing.”

“Nine out of ten students I speak to blame the universities and employers for this mess” – Ollie Lewis 

Like Charlie, Ollie feels “disheartened” at the prospect of his work going unmarked. “Why did my friends and I spend days and weeks holed up in the library at all hours of the day, if it wasn’t even going to be touched by an academic? Why have I committed to pay back £37,000 of tuition fee loans to the government if my time was wasted?”, he says.

Both Charlie and Ollie say they’re sympathetic to university staff, and are directing their anger and frustration towards university management refusing to settle the ongoing dispute. “Nine out of ten students I speak to blame the universities and employers for this mess,” Ollie says. “You can say ‘but it’s the staff going on strike’, but there is real sympathy out there for our lecturers and tutors. They are required to do more work than ever and lots of them get paid very little to do it.” There’s certainly evidence to suggest that the overwhelming majority of students really are backing university staff: in February a survey of nearly 11,000 students by The Tab found that 70 per cent support the UCU lecturer strikes.

David Farrier, professor of literature and the environment at the University of Edinburgh, is one of the staff taking part in the boycott. “I’ve been overwhelmed by the support from my students, who are sick with worry about their degrees but recognise that we’re here because of the failure of university leaders,” he says, adding that it’s cheering to see students like Charlie and Ollie speak up and urge university leaders to settle the dispute.

David stresses that the boycott was not a decision that university staff took lightly. “No one wants to be in this situation. University lecturers are passionate about education and we all want to see our students fulfil their potential,” he says. “But working conditions in universities are unsustainable. Especially for those at the start of their careers, the combination of low pay and insecure contracts is a massive problem – I hear of lecturers and tutors who have to choose between heating and eating.” 

Raj Jethwa, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said in a statement: “Higher education institutions respect employees’ right to take lawful industrial action and, in turn, UCU needs to respect the employers’ right to withhold pay for not fulfilling contracts.” 

Disturbingly, a number of university employers have also announced that they will make wage deductions – some of up to 100 per cent – for staff taking part in the boycott, despite staff continuing to teach, lecture, and support students as normal. In response, the UCU has condemned the threats, while some universities have announced fresh strike action. Evidently, it doesn’t look like the marking boycott will end any time soon. “We wouldn’t be here if university management had taken our concerns seriously. They could have solved this years ago,” David says. “I really, really want to get back to marking my students’ work. But, whatever the university might like to think, business as usual just isn’t an option.”

Clearly, the future looks uncertain for both staff and students. But at this point, ‘uncertainty’ is perhaps the only thing students can be certain they’ll face. For this year’s cohort of university leavers, the marking boycott is just another blot on what has been a disappointing, substandard student experience. Charlie says he’s made great friends at uni and that “Bristol is a fantastic city to be a student in”, but equally, he feels as though his time as an undergraduate has been “marred”. “In my first year, the COVID pandemic obviously hampered in-person teaching. I don’t feel like I got any value out of my degree that year,” he recalls. “Then in second year, we had strikes, strikes, and more strikes. Third year, again, strikes, strikes, strikes...”

The growing sense of frustration among the student population is palpable, with increasing numbers questioning if going to uni is even worth it. But, crucially, this mounting anger isn’t aimed at university staff – it’s aimed squarely at university leaders. And they should take note. “It feels a bit like the universities are laughing at us, because they think they can get away with this,” Ollie says. “But based on the anger I‘ve seen, I think they could be wrong.”

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