Liverpool and Leicester universities respond to marking boycotts

One students’ union is concerned the marking boycott and university response may imperil graduate plans

As two universities confront the impact of a marking boycott by striking academics, one may deploy an algorithm to determine grades, and the other may employ “temporary calculations”.

The University of Liverpool and the University of Leicester are in the midsts of separate strikes organised by the University and College Union (UCU). 

The majority of students at Liverpool were told they would receive their results “in line with published deadlines…on Monday, 5 July”, the university said. To do this, the university told students it would use “a temporary calculation of your weighted average for the year based on the marks that we have available”. 

“Any students with missing marks will have their remaining marks entered when they are available and, at that point, your average mark will automatically be re-calculated,” the university told soon-to-be graduates. 

The university will not downgrade calculated grades after scoring final scripts – but may upgrade students if their final marks merit a higher degree classification. An External Examiner would scrutinise the decisions by the Board of Examiners, the university added. The plan will ensure students’ “plans are not hindered by industrial action”, the statement concluded.

The Liverpool Guild of Students wrote to the Liverpool vice-chancellor Dame Janet Beer to express its dissatisfaction with her plans. The open letter warned senior leaders the plans were causing students “unnecessary stress” and called for them to reverse the 24 proposed redundancies in Health and Life Sciences and stop the industrial action. The Guild is concerned the mitigation plans may lead to less mark moderation, marking by unqualified individual and non-specialist external examiners, and delays for students seeking places on competitive postgraduate courses and graduate schemes. 

“While we recognise that, where relevant, the University intend to reissue degree awards once missing marks have been received, we are concerned that students with lower interim awards may miss out on valuable graduate opportunities they would otherwise secure,” the letter warned. 

The letter continued: “Along with this, students will be further impacted after graduation, as organisations and Universities will question the value and legitimacy of degrees from the University of Liverpool.”

“When students have already had an incredibly difficult 15 months, completing exams, essays, and dissertations during a global pandemic, the least they deserve is their hard work being acknowledged, fairly assessed and recognised,” the students’ union concluded. 

An assessment and marking boycott, where this is undertaken, has the potential to cause significant undue stress and disruption to our students… it is, on this occasion, proportionate and necessary to adopt a position of withholding 100% of pay
– University of Liverpool spokesperson

The university will dock 100% of the pay of staff who participate in the marking boycott, arguing the action short of a strike contravenes their contractual duties. Staff participating in the marking boycott that continues other work would do so voluntarily, the university warned – and there would be no remuneration. UCU said it has never seen an employer withhold 100% of pay from staff participating in a marking and assessment boycott. 

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Withholding all pay from staff who are willing to perform the majority of their duties is disgraceful and tantamount to a lock-out by university managers. We have never seen a university behave so egregiously. It is not the sort of behaviour you expect to see from an employer, let alone an institution that claims to be a proud asset of a great city like Liverpool.

“Managers are trying to squeeze staff and force them into accepting the sacking of 24 colleagues, who the university is attempting to remove via Amazon-style ‘rank and yank’ tactics. This disgraceful behaviour has made staff more willing than ever to fight for their colleagues’ livelihoods and students’ education. The only way for management to end this dispute is by halting the cuts which are opposed by students and staff alike.” 

Withholding all pay from staff who are willing to perform the majority of their duties is disgraceful and tantamount to a lock-out by university managers. We have never seen a university behave so egregiously
– 
Jo Grady, UCU general secretary

A spokesperson for Liverpool said: “An assessment and marking boycott, where this is undertaken, has the potential to cause significant undue stress and disruption to our students. Consequently, we have concluded that it is, on this occasion, proportionate and necessary to adopt a position of withholding 100% of pay from colleagues who take part in the assessment and marking boycott where this results in some or all marks as referred to above not being submitted by 5 July 2021.”

Staff at Leicester have boycotted marking and assessment since late May. An email sent to lecturers, shared on Twitter by a Leicester academic, urged them to mark work by 16 June, adding that ungraded papers would be assessed with an algorithm. 

Prof Graham Wynn, pro-vice-chancellor for education at the University of Leicester, said: “It is our priority to ensure our finalists can graduate and take the next steps in their journey, and that current students receive their outcomes for this academic year. At this point we do not expect any significant delay to the conferral of degrees or the quality and standards of our awards to be impacted.

“The university has set out that it may withhold some pay from members of staff taking part in action short of a strike because not marking student’s assessments constitutes partial performance of a contract.”


Read more: University of Hull faces new strike threat

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