26th July. 2023

The Marking Boycott: The Pandemic Students’ Final Battle

Three years later and nothing to show for it.   

An unfortunate cohort of students set to graduate this summer might not receive end-of-year results due to the marking boycott. Three or more years of hard work rewarded by an empty piece of paper upon graduating, with the hope that sometime in the future, a diploma will follow. Once again, students are left with an unsatisfactory alternative to a real qualification.  Understandably, students across the UK are feeling disheartened, with industrial action persisting and no significant action by the universities to remedy this injustice. 

This culmination of events calls for a deep dive into why this is happening, and raises one important question: will students ever be compensated for the devastating impact on their education?  

Years of frustration

The University and College Union (UCU), represents over one hundred thousand university staff members by negotiating their salaries, pay structures and working conditions. 

Industrial action was first triggered by proposed changes to a pension scheme in the 2017-18 academic year. The 2018 strike stretched over fourteen days and was said to be the longest strike action at the time, affecting tens of universities nationwide.

Strikes concerning pay and working conditions began soon after, among growing concerns regarding precarious contracts and cavernous pay gaps between staff and senior management. 

In 2021, after over a year of online teaching due to lockdowns, strikes resumed in response to renewed outrage over disproportionate pay to Vice Chancellors (VCs). According to reports from that year, VCs enjoyed, on average, a total remuneration of £269,000 per annum while the majority of university staff surveyed across the country suffered burnout due to difficult working conditions. 

Students suffer the consequences 

According to the UCU, negotiations over the past few years have seen little progress, with employers failing to produce  a workable solution to the persistent salary and working conditions complaints. The rise in cost of living and inflation forced the union to push for a renegotiation of the 2023-24 pay award and announce a marking boycott starting 21 April 2023 across 145 universities.

Current figures show only 31% of final year students at Durham University will graduate as expected, while only half will receive an interim award. Cambridge University warned that “more than half of Cambridge final-year students will not graduate” due to the boycott.

Students across the UK are worried about how this might affect employment opportunities. In an interview with Dazed, Charlie, a Bristol University student was quoted saying: “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… 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.

Justice for Students 

This dispute, set to last until September 2023, marks five years of disruption to higher education. Many students indeed support university staff and are calling on universities to settle the ongoing dispute. 

In the meantime, the students’ struggle should also be acknowledged. A final year student at Edinburgh University, Ollie Lewis, tweeted his 10,000 word dissertation will not be marked, and that he had committed to “pay £37,000+ in tuition fees over the course of my future career. My international friends have paid (or will owe) nearly £80,000”. 

On 24 May 2023, the Student Group Claim had its first court hearing against UCL. Injustice caused to students is now on the court agenda. Students who continue to be affected by industrial action and the recent marking boycott should know that a claim for compensation for 2022-2023 is potentially possible if a sufficient number of people join the group. Interest may be registered at this link: https://studentgroupclaim.co.uk/2022-2023