Clash of Comments: Is the marking boycott justified?


Article Image

Image by pxfuel

By Sam Lewis and Anonymous null

YES, Sam Lewis

People don’t want to strike: if you strike then you can’t be paid. This is important to consider with the marking boycott, as strikers face the potential of a 50 percent pay cut when striking. I bring this up to show how desperate the situation must be for the UCU to take such a step – a step so drastic that the reason for the boycott, and therefore why it should be supported and taken incredibly seriously.

Quite simply, strikes are no longer working. As a third-year student, most of my time at university has been disrupted – strikes are such a frequent occurrence that they are basically a part of the term calendar. Importantly, this is also how they are seen by the Senior Management Team (SMT). The frequency of the strikes has been treated almost as an inevitability by Charlie Jeffery. In this way, strikes are having an increasingly diminishing impact, something I have seen reflected in the ever more demoralising nature of the picket lines I have attended. Although these strikes are no longer working, the reasons behind them have not gone away – university staff lack adequate pay and proper pensions. People do not want to strike, but serious changes are required if people are going to feel comfortable working. If the SMT are going to ignore industrial action, it leaves staff with limited options.

As someone who is waiting to hear back about their assignments, I find this frustrating. But I have also seen the conditions of those who work at universities: my mother works at a university, and when she tried to reduce her hours it was assumed she would be doing the same amount with less pay. It reveals how casually people consider the idea that teaching at a university is actually a job, one that does not provide people with the support and planning that they deserve. Marking is a massive aspect of the unpaid overtime that is expected of lecturers and teaching assistants, and whilst they want to help students, it is a job and they do need greater financial support than they are getting. In this way, whilst I am frustrated, I support the boycott if it means that we can see some actual change in working conditions. I can’t speak for everyone’s experience, but I have not met a teacher at this university who does not want to teach and help students. Having gone to most of the picket lines in my time here, that is definitely the idea that one gets from speaking to people. This action is necessary so that future years are not as affected by industrial action as we have been.

The idea of the future is an important one, as the boycott comes at a moment when the nature of university education is in question. In particular, it is reflective of the ongoing struggle between education and profit. The effort that teachers put in, without pay, and attempting to balance this with research, whilst lacking job security, only currently matters at the associate level in terms of profit margins. Whilst of course money is required to maintain a university, the University of York should always be a centre for research and education first, and a business second.

I have loved my time at York, the ability to freely pursue my academic interests, and the high quality of teaching that I have had access to. I am worried that as we move closer to an American model (as is already being seen) that we lose this. In this way, the boycott is supporting the future of higher education, and whilst having personal frustrations, it is important to put them aside so that future generations can have what I have had and more.

NO, Anonymous

Students are no strangers to the causes and effects of the strikes. It is true that lecturers and academic staff are facing massive issues, with casual short term contracts, poor pensions, and low pay – not to mention the gender pay gap. Fundamentally, they deserve our support and help to correct these clear injustices.

Let’s be honest though , the University and College Union (UCU) strike action isn’t working. But why would it? Unlike travel operators, when academic staff strike, the only group massively impacted are students. Unable to bring the country grinding to a halt like train operators, or put strain on NHS services like nurses, when academic staff strike, it is only us students who are impacted. As a group, we aren’t particularly valuable or important to the current Conservative government (with 56 percent of 18-24 year olds voting Labour in 2019 according to YouGov), and when a strike means that the university management gets to keep student tuition fees and then salaries of striking staff, it becomes a viable money making exercise for the university.

A marking boycott may seem, currently, like a new and innovative way to impact university management and push through change. However, realistically, what it does is impact students the most – and when most students have supported their lecturers so tirelessly on their many striking days over the past few years, it feels like a final slap in the face.

Students have accepted and supported lecturers despite cancelled lectures and seminars, getting little support on their summatives, and avoiding campus to avoid crossing the picket line. They have now been hit with more disruptive action which specifically targets examinations and essays, which have taken months to perfect. Staff seem to be testing what little goodwill they had from students in the first place.

Take first-year students for example. While this may not contribute to your degree classification overall, fundamentally it is those preliminary essays and exams which offer a benchmark for where to go next – with marker feedback informing how you can improve in the upcoming essays and exams. To be denied that feedback at such an early stage could have an incredibly negative impact going forward – with students unsure how to proceed with writing or picking up marks in essays and exams.

The impact on third-year students is even bigger. Aside from the fact that students spend months writing and perfecting their dissertation, final essays and exams, the marking boycott threatens to undermine future opportunities students have secured after their graduation. For students who have secured an offer for Masters study or a graduate scheme which requires a confirmed degree classification, the marking boycott threatens their security as they are unable to confirm their grades.

I understand that strike action is supposed to be disruptive and practically the UCU has very few options at their disposal, so of course this action makes sense. The issue comes when the only impact is on students and staff, with students missing out on teaching and feedback, and staff losing out on their salary. The truth is, I don’t have a viable option to suggest as an alternative, but fundamentally students need more than just a few words of sympathy each time they’re torpedoed by disruption over which they have no power.