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"It's Made Us Feel Helpless": UK University Strikes Damage Students

On 20th April this year, 145 universities across the UK began participating in a Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB).

It involves university staff refusing to carry out certain duties when it comes to students’ academic work, such as not attending in-person assessments, or not marking essays and exams.

The MAB comes as a result of the ongoing fight from the University and College Union (UCU) for better pay and pensions for university staff, a fight that has been happening for years now. As it stands, the average salary for a lecturer is £40,761, whilst the highest-paid professors may earn up to £113,251.

Yet despite the offer of a 5-8% pay improvement from the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), purportedly their highest offer yet, UCU has rejected it in the hope of more.

And students are not impressed.

UCU are encouraging them to support the action, arguing that solidarity will help propel the negotiations. Although the majority of the UK student population is supportive of the labour movement and trade union work, it seems that the boycott has had too many adverse effects on their standard of education and post-university opportunities. Without their end-of-year marks, many have been left uncertain as to whether they have passed this academic year, whether they can be accepted into conditionally offered employment, and whether or not they can graduate at all.

The University of Nottingham gave students two options in order to receive their end-of-year marks that would dictate their progression into their next year of study: either a ‘derived grade’ based on earlier work, though earlier marks may no longer be representative of their current academic abilities, or wait until the boycott ends, but risk not having the marks in time to progress in September.

Eliyan Wallbank, a student at Nottingham, argues, “It’s highly unfair the way that we still have to pay the full amount for our course, and how we worked so hard for these exams for them not to be marked. It’s setting us back a lot.” Though Eliyan accepted a derived grade, she still asks, “How can they use our January exams to judge our May exams when they’re entirely different modules? Some may have thrived in May and not necessarily in January.”

Roma Singh, a student at the University of York, has also felt the adverse impact of the MAB. She maintains that whilst she understands the reasoning behind the action, the way in which it has mostly affected students seems wrong. “We’re students; there’s only so much we can do, there’s only so much power we have,” Roma explains.

As it stands, the majority of UK universities charge £9250 a year, and students can expect to be around £45,000 in debt after their studies. It comes as no surprise then that like Eliyan, Roma has also seen payment to the universities amidst these strikes as unjustified. “It’s made us feel helpless. We’ve missed weeks of learning. It’s not just about the exams, it’s also about missing out on what you’re paying for, and it’s an absurd amount we’re paying.”

So, when will the boycott come to an end?

Some universities have refused to give staff their full pay, should they participate in the MAB, whilst students are signing open letters and writing to university boards in the hope of ending the industrial action sooner, but disputes are still ongoing.

Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary, has argued that it is only employers that can end the boycott and is currently seeking to take the disputes to an even higher level. In a statement released from UCU, she assured university staff, “we will not bow down to intimidation.”

With the rate of current negotiations remaining slow, the future for students hangs in the balance, and they can only hope that the industrial action ends before even more damage is done.


Article by Holly Hughes

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