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UCU marking and assessment boycott to go ahead

From 20th April the University and College Union (UCU)’s plans for a marking and assessment boycott will go ahead after discussions with its members.

The union first announced the boycott on 5th April subject to consultations with members known as the UCU Rising. The consultations closed on Monday 17th April at 10am, with the results of those discussions announced the same day.

The boycott is organised as part of the UCU’s disputes over pay and conditions for university employees. It would have also included disputes related to pensions offered by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), but 85% of the members voted to ‘note’ the agreed proposals on pensions, wanting to move back to negotiations and prepare for future action. 56% of members rejected the pay and conditions proposals after the consultations, meaning the boycott will go ahead with respect to this dispute.

Following a series of strikes, these proposals were put forward by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), the representatives of university employers, on 15th March. The UCU Rising consultation came after an announcement of renewed strike action on the 3rd April 2023.

This was preceded by university staff voting 85.6% in the pay and conditions ballot and 89% in the pensions ballot, choosing to continue striking over both disputes. Members also voted overwhelmingly to continue action short of strike (ASOS) on non-striking days in both ballots.

According to UCU’s website, the marking and assessment boycott (MAB) will see UCU members cease “all summative marking and associated assessment activities and duties (such as exam invigilation) until further notice” across 150 universities, including the University of Oxford. This is not the first time the university has faced a MAB as disputes over staff pay and pensions have been ongoing for almost a decade.

The university’s website page dedicated to industrial action notes that around 12% of eligible university employees are members of the UCU, meaning it is likely the majority of marking will not be affected by the boycott.

The MAB covers any and all forms of assessment of university work completed by any student, from undergraduate to postgraduate level. It not only includes final examinations involved in the awarding of a degree but also “any form of in-course continuous assessment” that influences decisions about the suitability of students to carry on with their studies. Under the University of Oxford’s assessment system, this would include Prelims for first-year students.

As the boycott is only related to university marking duties, marking for collections will not be affected because they are set by colleges. Regarding formative assessments, assessments not related to degrees or the continued progression of studies, members can “provide general support but should not provide any feedback from which any mark for summative assessments could be reasonably deduced”. The UCU have said that “hundreds” of their members have undergone MAB training to ensure they are prepared for the boycott.

There is no fixed time period for the MAB to take place. UCU’s website states that the boycott will last “until the disputes are settled, or UCU calls off the boycott, or at the end of the industrial action ballot mandate”. On the 3rd April, the UCU renewed its mandate for strike action for another six months after re-balloting its members.

Some members expressed concern about the lack of solid parameters for the MAB, suggesting it might give university employers more cause to deduct pay from boycotting employees. The union responded that they will be “challenging, naming and shaming and bringing pressure to bear on employers who try deductions” and encouraged their members to access union funds for financial support if their pay is affected.

“Although this is much more marginal, this is democracy, and our members have spoken.”

In a Twitter video by UCU general secretary Jo Grady, she stated that 35,338 members voted as part of the consultations. She said that the overwhelming noting of the pension proposals shows that the UCU are “on the way to a historic victory” and called it “a victory no UK union has ever delivered on this scale”. 

Grady added in her video regarding the proportion of members voting to reject the pay and conditions proposals: “Although this is much more marginal, this is democracy, and our members have spoken.” 

Grady continued by stating that university employers “need to put an improved offer on the table” to prevent disruption to examinations and further strike action. The UCU will hold a special sector conference on Wednesday 19th April to make decisions about next steps in the disputes post-consultation. 

The proposals agreed with employers on pensions have received near-universal support from their members. Though dissatisfaction on the pay and conditions proposals has resulted in the MAB still going ahead, Grady declared that the UCU will “fight on” over both disputes.

This boycott shows that union members are dedicated to improving the support they receive in the workplace. It remains to be seen how students on a local and national level will be affected by this action.