Impact of Marking and Assessment Boycott 

Professor Helen Smith, Head of the English and Related Literature Department, has presented an open letter to the Vice Chancellor protesting the 50% pay reductions threatened in response to the Marking and Assessment boycott.

The latest large-scale plan from the University and College Union (UCU) entails a marking and assessment boycott, which commenced on Thursday the 5th of April. The UCU hopes that this action will eventually assist the improvement of University staff’s pay, working conditions and pensions.

In response, several universities across the country, including the University of York, have proposed cutting the pay of any members of staff participating in the boycott by 50%.

On the 18th of April, Vice Chancellor Charlie Jeffrey told students via an email that “a marking and assessment boycott has the potential to cause more concern, impact and disruption to students than any other form of industrial action. With this in mind, we have made the decision to withhold pay for those taking part in the boycott.”

“This situation is a matter of immense regret to me,” he adds, outlining the difficulty of the situation, but he clarifies that this decision is in defence of the student body, stating: “we are determined that it does not compromise the quality of your education, your progression through your programme, or the quality of a degree from the University of York.”

However, it certainly puts members of staff in a precarious position, as this reduction could severely affect their livelihood. Head of the English and Related Literature Department, Professor Helen Smith, began collecting signatures and produced an open letter protesting the Universities’ “decision to slash the pay of hardworking colleagues.”

“If we go through with this policy,” she writes, “there will be members of staff who will not be able to pay their rent, household bills, mortgages, childcare or other caring costs.”

Though the Vice Chancellor points out in his email that “we haven’t been subject to a marking an assessment boycott here at York before”, Smith argues in her letter: “it is not unprecedented at York. UCU members at York participated in marking and assessment boycotts in 2006 and 2014.”

She delivered the letter to VC Charlie Jeffrey during lunchtime on Wednesday the 26th of April, by which time she had gathered 799 signatures from staff, students, alumni and examiners.

They proceeded with a meeting on the Thursday morning, and now Smith and her fellow signers anticipate his response. During this time, the signatory has expanded to 860 participants, including 16 Heads of Department.

In a statement to Vision, Smith makes it clear that the responsibility of solving this does not entirely fall on the shoulders of our University: “I really value the exceptional way in which the University of York looks after its students and staff. This is a national dispute, and the Boycott can only be ended at the national negotiating table.”

She recognises Charlie Jeffrey’s insistence that he will “not stop fighting” for a resolution, and she hopes that “all universities will follow his lead, and that we at York can find a way to steer away from disproportionate and damaging pay deductions.”

As the strikes have continued, universities are now threatening to dock 100% of their staff’s wages. This has partially backfired, as numbers of staff participating in the strike have increased in outrage.

In some ways, it has seen success: since April 2022, the average employee lost 35% from their pensions, but in late May Universities UK (UUK) and UCU issued a joint statement saying benefits would be returned to their original levels.

However, even if the strikes are enabling progress for university staff, in the meantime students are suffering for it. Despite the Vice Chancellor being “determined” not to affect students’ education, their progress has inevitably been stinted by an absence of feedback. Perhaps the worst part, though, is how it affects graduating students in particular. 

This year, graduation ceremonies are scheduled for the 18th-22nd of July, but given the marking boycotts these students might not have had all their assessments marked by that time. Hence, students may have to attend the ceremony without knowing whether they’ve actually graduated or not. Some institutions are planning to provide students with degrees based on available data, disregarding assessments that remain unmarked, but how the University of York intends to deal with this is yet to be confirmed.

The University responded to a request to comment:

“Depending on the course or department, many of our students are experiencing little or no disruption, but we recognise that students are concerned where there is action taking place. 

“The University has developed a comprehensive policy for our students to ensure they can graduate or progress to the next stage of their studies, or apply for jobs.

“This includes using existing grades we already have for students and, where we don’t have enough information to make a decision, students can still progress with the caveat that their results are still pending. For finalists, we are also working closely with Careers to offer further advice and support.”

“We are grateful to staff and student representatives who are working hard to update students as we put mitigations in place.”

The end doesn’t seem to be in sight, as no plans to stop the boycott and any other industrial action strike have been released. As such, both staff and students may have to continue bearing the consequences.