Students and their unions need to back the marking boycotts

Niall Hignett is a first year Durham Law student, political activist, and freelance journalist

You know the boiling frog anecdote – if you place a frog in cold water on a stovetop, and slowly turn up the temperature until boiling point, the frog won’t resist, or realise it is being boiled alive.

University management are at the helm of the stove, with a chirping higher education sector immersed in rapidly rising temperatures. For years, Vice chancellors have been turning up the heat. For years, we have not done enough to stop the higher education sector being torn apart by marketisation.

It has come at a grave cost for academics and students alike. For academics, swinging cuts in the sector have seen stagnated wages, casualisation, and devastating UUK pensions cuts. For students, the detriment to education and overall experience has been massive – there are ever-growing staff:student ratios, which come alongside continually spiralling and unmanageable costs.

The customer is king?

This is the result of universities having to self-fund. Students have become, in essence, customers, in a so called “consumer choice” driven university market. This translates to a neoliberal economic model for education, where spending is minimised, and exploitation is rife. Universities are a service provider, and if you’re a student, you pay for said service. This has seen the interests of staff and students align, with one common goal – universities must invest more of their billions of pounds surplus.

A push to make this happen, and reverse the damage done by marketisation, has seen the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) striking frequently since 2018. This has been (mostly) accepted by students, with many backing UCU’s #OneOfUsAllOfUs campaign, with the message “your learning conditions are our teaching conditions” cutting through. This has also seen many SUs pass motions unambiguously supporting industrial action.

However, with the recent announcement UCU will be participating in marking boycotts, there has been a knee-jerk reaction by many in academia, condemning the actions of UCU.

Of course, students being upset that they may not graduate is understandable. After indebting themselves for life, alongside years of Covid restrictions and consistent strike disruption, it is fair to say my peers have every right to be furious. It is unfortunate, however, that many have elected to punch down at their academics, who are participating in the industrial action.

Time to try new things

There’s an old saying about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. UCU have tried to win their dispute through less disruptive strike action, and it has not worked. They have been forced, by management, to take more radical action – students must mirror UCU’s radicalism.

The aforementioned marketised structure of education means that you pay the university for your degree. If that is not delivered, because of industrial action, the blame lies with vice chancellor, not lecturers. Employees of the university are not the ones who owe students a degree. They are staff, not altruist volunteers. They have every right to participate in industrial action. It is the university whose shoulders it falls on to ensure students get the service they pay for.

But, of course, that argument has been made, and many have still chosen to try to stop UCU industrial action, rather than help them to succeed. This strategy will not work. It only serves to benefit management. Where students take their anger out at UCU, they are blaming staff, engrossed in battle for their working rights, instead of their employer, for plundering them into such a predicament. If students continue to blame staff, we will almost certainly be subject to marking boycotts, and let the divide and conquer tactics of management flourish.

The harsh reality is that UCU have voted for marking boycotts. Collective, democratic, decisions will not be overturned – nor should they. It is vital that UCU win their pension and four fights dispute, for the benefit of the whole sector.

Students’ only mechanism of preventing further industrial action, and stopping marking boycotts, is to help UCU win their industrial action. Regardless of our feelings, this is the only practical solution. All other courses of action are futile, and only serve to undermine the efforts of marginalised staff to improve their working conditions.

Pressure is building

Over the last few months, we’ve seen student pressure on universities building – including, but not limited to, occupations in Bristol, Rent Strikes in Manchester, Fee Strikes at LSE, and Open Day Protests at Durham, to try and bring the dispute to an end.

Merely registering discontent in a strongly worded email is not enough. Students and their unions must engage in more radical action, alongside UCU. Acting in contravention will not achieve anything. Whether that’s by launching protests, occupying university spaces, rent striking, or fee striking, students must take collective action – to save not just their degrees and lecturers pensions, but to preserve access to higher education for future generations.

We, as students, must break out of our collective boiling frog syndrome and fight back.

4 responses to “Students and their unions need to back the marking boycotts

  1. Extremely idealistic and easy coming from a first year student where nothing really counts. What of international students whose stay in the country rests on this? What of finalists whose grad schemes require documents by a certain date? Or those going on to further study?

    1. The marking boycotts will go ahead if the dispute isn’t resolved. Students only way to bring about an end to the UCU dispute is to back back UCU, and start campaigning alongside them.

      The fallout from marking boycotts would be awful for those subjected to them. But, the blame lies with university management, not lecturers.

      And, even if you do blame lecturers, being angry at them for excerising their rights to collective action will not only achieve nothing, but it makes a resolution less likely.

  2. Niall knows what matters, and not just to himself – he’s shown that through leading work challenging irresponsible, racist and transphobic college leadership and working on ending rough sleeping in Durham. He also understands that it’s through solidarity that we’ll win on the issues of justice that matter to students, staff, and others in our interconnected society. Great article!

Leave a Reply