An update and explainer on a potential Marking Boycott for Easter term.
*Update: since the publication of this article, the marking boycott has now been officially called - find out more here*
UCU have recently re-balloted their members, receiving a renewed mandate for strike action over the next 6 months. The plans for these 6 months are yet to be decided, however, it is likely that UCU will pursue a Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB). This ballot was done across every university so any potential MAB will not be Cambridge-specific, but rather will happen in every university.
While this is not confirmed, we know that students may have questions or concerns they want answered as soon as possible. We will update this page with more information as soon as we have it. This may be a confusing or difficult time and as your SU we are here to support you.
What is a Marking and Assessment Boycott?
According to the UCU website: ‘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). All summative marking and assessment, at all levels, are covered in the boycott--undergraduate, sub-degree, and postgraduate--so it will include all taught postgraduate summative assessment; PhD final vivas and MPhil to PhD progression/confirmation vivas/assessments. It applies to all forms of higher education and professional training: full-time, part-time, or distance learning.’
How would this affect my end of year exams?
Most supervisors are employed on a college level and therefore are not part of this dispute which is University-employed staff only. Therefore, marking of supervision essays (such as for revision) would likely continue as normal. If your supervisor is faculty-employed, however, it is likely that they may be part of the MAB.
It likely that all students would continue to sit their exams as normal. However, invigilation is part of the boycott so there is a chance that some exams may not take place or may be delayed due to lack of inviligators. You can ask you faculty directly about their expectations with regard to this. Academics who are UCU members and would usually mark exams will ‘boycott’ this, refusing to mark exams or act as an external examiner until a better offer is negotiated. If the MAB is brought to an end by productive negotiations, exams will likely be marked afterwards thus giving students their results (but delayed).
I need results to graduate - what will happen?
The University is allowing this disruption to continue, meaning graduations may be affected if they refuse to negotiate a better deal within this time. However, it’s important to remember that these MABs will happen in every university across the country. While it is stressful, you are not alone. All students nationally will be halted in their progression, meaning careers and other educational institutions will likely be understanding and put in place mitigations to allow progression (otherwise, final year students across the country won’t be able to take up any jobs!).
While graduation is really important, it’s also important for your benefit that your exams are marked fairly – read under ‘What is the University doing’ for more information. There may be delays to graduation ceremonies. While it is from a previous year, this website has some useful information.
Why would a MAB happen?
Any student who has been here for a few years will know that UCU has been striking since 2018 and Universities have refused to engage or negotiate a proper deal. Academics and Academic-related staff are currently being treated without dignity or respect in their workplaces (with low pay, pensions, lack of workplace contracts, and unsustainable workloads). These issues directly affect us as students too. One of UCU’s demands is that Universities take action against casualisation: it isn’t in our interests to have many of our lecturers or support staff without a stable contract, unsure if they’ll still be here to teach next year. The Higher Education system as a whole is failing and drastic action is needed.
The MAB is an ‘escalation’ of action and it is clear that the University is already very scared by this. It’s not action taken lightly and many academics feel very upset about the disruption this causes students, but they feel they have no other choice if they want the University to become a liveable place for them to work in. The MAB will cause disruption to the University, forcing them to take the concerns of their staff seriously. UCU members hope that, with the strength of feeling demonstrated by the reballot and the consultation of all members, the additional pressure will force the employers back into meaningful negotiations, making the MAB unnecessary or short-lived.
In this year’s round of strikes, negotiations have seen huge wins on pensions, proving that industrial action works. However, staff pay has already declined on average by 25% between 2009 and 2021, and the current ‘offer’ from employers would lead to a further 15% pay cut. Negotiations can make progress, but the outside pressure of a MAB is needed to push employers to give a dignified pay offer.
MABs occurred in around 20 Universities last year, (such as the University of Kent) and most ended relatively quickly. The threat of disruption is so large that hopefully the MAB will not last long.
What is the University doing to stop this?
The best thing the University could do right now is push for the national employers’ bodies (UCEA for pay and conditions and UUK for pensions) to make offers that UCU members can accept, thus bringing the MAB to an end. The University Council has proposed some changes to the examination system to mitigate the impact of the MAB but this just means they delay any proper, effective engagement with UCU. The mitigations also would involve making the exams less fair by withdrawing external examiners. This would have a negative impact on the already-existing awarding gap.
We believe that students deserve better and that these mitigations will hurt the most marginalised of students, as well as allowing the MAB to continue. We are urging academics to vote against these proposals. You can read more and sign our ‘flysheet against changes to examinations’ (open letter) to push for better support for students and staff.
What are the SU doing to support me?
Our Student Council passed a policy that involves supporting UCU action (including ‘action short of a strike’, which includes a marking boycott). This means we will be sharing clear information for students, supporting J/MCRS in any way they need it, lobbying for effective support for students, and pushing for the MAB to be brought to an end through effective engagement with UCU.
- Our Student Advice Service is available for impartial, independent advice concerning your own exams, career, or anything else you may be worried about.
- We have our note-sharing drive which you can use to share revision essays and lecture notes from previous years to help other students.
- We also have a ‘strikebridge’ facebook group which you are welcome to use to talk to other students, ask them questions
- Our academic rep system can be used to support students within faculties - if you want to know who your academic rep is, and what they can tell you about faculty-level support, send us an email.
- We are lobbying the University to bring this MAB to an end to allow students to graduate and progress as soon as possible.
- We will be inviting UCU reps to join us at an open meeting to answer student questions directly about the MAB - more information will be on our website soon.
- Our SU Lounge is open as a study space and you are welcome to use it to organise your own study groups to share notes and give feedback to one another.