The 2023 marking and assessment boycott, explained

David Kernohan summarises where we are to date with the marking and assessment boycott and the pay dispute that has driven it

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

University staff have seen pay fall sharply in real terms over the recent inflationary peak – just as universities have seen income fall in real terms and the costs of doing business grow.

Under such circumstances, the ongoing industrial dispute over pay and conditions has been longer and more bitter than any in recent memory. The sector is currently facing a marking and assessment boycott that could affect the progression and qualification of many students.

But how did we get here? It’s a significant understatement to describe sector industrial relations as “complex” and “fractious” – and if you’ve not been following every twist and turn of the various letters, ballots, and statements issued by all those involved it is quite easy to get lost.

For that reason – as plainly and as clearly as is possible – I’ve attempted to set out an explanation of what is happening, what it means, and what might happen next.

What is this dispute about?

Earlier this year unions started industrial action on pensions (specifically USS pensions) and on conditions of employment issues better known as “the four fights” – pay, workload, equality, and casualisation. None of these issues are new to this particular industrial action – unions have been looking for significant movement here for a long time.

On USS, this dispute has now come to an end – with employers, unions, and USS trustees all agreeing that the forthcoming valuation of the scheme was likely (based on ongoing monitoring) to show a surplus, and that this should be used to reduce the level of contributions (for employers and employees) previously set in response to a valuation made in April 2020 – a point at which it is fair to say the state of wider economy was not representative of medium to long-term trends. Notably both employers and unions were unhappy with the 2020 valuation – which happened the way it did as a result of regulatory requirements. This is a rare but welcome success story in sector industrial relations.

On pay, in response to the cost of living crisis (particularly noting that a rise in inflation had eroded the value of salaries in real terms, and that many lower paid staff needed urgent support) university employers opened the 2023-2024 New JNCHES pay round earlier than usual, in December 2022. I’ve written about how this process works elsewhere. The initial union “ask” was a pay rise for all staff of the highest of RPI plus two per cent, or £4,000. As is generally the case with New JNCHES, the discussion ended up in the dispute resolution process – so meetings were convened at Acas.

What came out of that was a final UCEA pay offer that would see all staff get at least a five per cent pay rise in August 2023, with staff on lower points of the pay spine getting a eight per cent rise – this on top of standard salary progression (movement within and between spine points). Reflecting the immediate pressure of the cost of living crisis, about half of this was to be applied early (£1,000 on each pay point, or two per cent at the higher end of the spine) in February 2022. This February uplift was applied without the agreement of the unions, and remains a bone of contention. Some providers were unable to afford this in-year increase, but remain committed to the August implementation of the total agreed rise.

The Acas conciliation process also saw agreements for further joint work on casualisation (“contract types”), on equality pay gaps, a full review of the pay spine, and on workload. UCEA and the five higher education unions released the following statement:

Following a meeting between UCEA and the Joint HE Trade Unions on Tuesday 14 March 2023, facilitated by Acas, agreement has been reached on terms of reference for detailed negotiations covering a review of the UK HE pay spine, workload, contract types and equality pay gaps. The Joint HE Trade Unions and UCEA will now consult their respective constituencies on these terms of reference as a basis for commencing those negotiations over pay-related matters.

For clarity, on pay, both parties agreed on 17 February 2023 that some progress at the lower end of the pay spine has been made in Acas discussions as part of the New JNCHES Dispute Resolution Procedure, although an impasse, rather than an agreement, has been reached. It was agreed that with regard to pay the Dispute Resolution Procedure had been exhausted.

So why is there still industrial action if there was an agreed joint statement?

Trade unions are democratic bodies and each of the five unions involved needed to consult their members on the proposals.

Unite will be balloting members on the outcomes of the Acas process. It is urging members to vote “yes” to reject the offer. It is also seeking the views of members on the prospect of holding a formal disaggregated ballot for industrial action starting in September 2023 – and is urging members to vote “yes” on this issue.

Unison members rejected an earlier version of the pay offer, and were balloted for industrial action across the sector on a phased basis. There has already been strike action at seven providers, with members at a further 32 higher education employers currently taking part in a ballot which ends on 31 July.

GMB is still in dispute with UCEA over pay related issues, but is not currently balloting members or taking industrial action

EIS-ULA held an aggregated consultative ballot between 2 June and 30 June regarding the 2023-24 pay dispute – it called on members to reject the pay offer, and to vote “yes” on strike action and action short of a strike. The results have not yet been released.

UCU carried out a number of consultative exercises, but the one that counts was the formal consultation of members. Some 56 per cent of those who voted rejected the outcomes of the Acas process. Alongside this, the union held an aggregated ballot of members for strike action and action short of a strike on pay – more than 80 per cent of those who voted were in favour of both. The marking and assessment boycott started on 20 April involving 145 providers – and the current plan is that this will continue at least until the mandate expires in September, though it is likely that a new mandate will be sought before then.

What all unions are asking for is a return to negotiations – with the hope of further movement on 2023-24 pay, and progress on the four pay-related negotiations that were agreed at Acas. On this UCEA has indicated that it is happy to resume work on casualisation, equality, workload, and the pay spine review if the unions agree to suspend industrial action. However, it regards the 2023-24 pay round as closed and will not re-enter negotiations on this – noting that “given the current financial situation there is no possibility of this happening.”

What is a marking and assessment boycott?

Exactly what it sounds like – staff involved simply refuse to do work relating to marking or otherwise assessing student work. This obviously means essays, dissertations, and practical and artistic work don’t get marked, but also relates to stuff like exam boards, processing marks, and making progression or final award decisions. UCU has been clear that this action only applies to “summative” assessment – academics who use formative assessment (for example, seminar quizzes) as a teaching tool that doesn’t contribute to module or course grades have continued to do so.

Because not everyone involved in this action short of a strike is an academic we need also to bear in mind the administrative processes that underpin the conversion of marked work into results and decisions. Collating marks, applying algorithms, preparing papers for exam boards, attending and clerking said boards, and the various data manipulation and data entry tasks that follow are all in scope for this action.

It’s also worth bearing in mind the work of external examiners – not directly employed by the provider in question (they receive an honorarium, reasonable expenses, or both) but still able to choose to withdraw their participation in the process.

How have universities responded?

Universities have generally seen this boycott as “partial performance” of contractual duties – so many have used their legal right to reduce or not to pay salaries. If an employer states that it does not accept partial performance of a contract, it can withhold pay entirely. This has happened in a few cases, though in the most part the deduction has been partial – where employers allow employees to continue to do other work then pay should reflect this.

There has been a lot of debate about how much pay should be deducted in these cases – there are no hard and fast rules on this, though case law suggests that a proportion of pay that fairly recognises the extent of partial performance is fair. This is based on the damage caused to the employer rather than the proportion of the contract (or workload model) that is based on carrying out the task in question.

Even if someone has assessment-related responsibilities as one of many contractual duties, the damage caused to their employer (in terms of the cost of having the work performed by someone else, or of offering compensation to students, or in rescheduling events) is what matters here. Industrial action, of course, is generally designed to cause significant damage to an employer.

More than 20 UCU branches are now taking strike action as a result of these policies.

What about students?

The undergraduates reaching the end of their full-time three year courses this year started their studies in the autumn of 2020. They have suffered through Covid restrictions in 2020 and 2021, plus industrial action in 2020, 2022, and 2023. Although all students are potentially affected by the boycott, it is this group – and the trainee teachers who have been temporarily allowed to proceed into jobs without confirmation that they have attained qualified teacher status – that has attracted attention in the national and local press.

It is unclear how many students have been affected, or at which providers. As with any industrial action, unions are keen to claim that the boycott is causing serious problems, while employers are keen to emphasise that any problems are isolated incidents.

There is clearly a difference between a first year waiting for a mark for a single piece of work on one module, and the final year students unable to get the degree classification they need for the next stage on their career plan. The Guardian and Sky News have reported – based on information from the National Union of Students – that tens of thousands of students are being left without final results, including about a third of the UK’s final year undergraduates.

Conversely, UCEA has surveyed just under half (49 per cent) of universities involved in the boycott. Some 71 per cent claimed that less than two per cent of their students would be unable to graduate, four per cent claimed it would be between two per cent and nine per cent, and a further 20 per cent claimed to be unsure. Commenting on coverage of the boycott at the University of Cambridge, UCU suggests that “this is just the tip of the iceberg of the national degree scandal” and, in response to the UCEA survey, told us “Over 5,000 students have already been told their degrees have been impacted, and we are still around a month away from most graduations.”

As another way of understanding the scope of the MAB I’ve been tracking local and national press coverage relating to individual institutions – and joint statements made by universities and local union branches – and have visualised this here. My thinking here is that effective action is likely to attract press coverage, and that the likely result of an effective campaign is a joint statement. I will try to keep this up to date and accurate, and if I’ve missed something important please do let me know.

[Full screen]

What will happen next?

Universities have put in place mitigations, most commonly where results are incomplete allowing students to graduate with their final grade to be confirmed, or with a provisional final grade based on previous performance. Jim Dickinson has been keeping an eye on this, and on the case for student compensation where results (and feedback on work) has not been provided in a timely way. Certainly, graduations appear to be going ahead in many parts of the sector – possibly as a result of these mitigations, and possibly as a result of a low number of students being affected.

The national debate, such that it is, appears to be iterating towards a question of affordability. Raj Jethwa at UCEA suggested on Wonkhe that an independent review of sector finances would help avoid similarly damaging disputes in future – though (also on Wonkhe) Jo Grady at UCU continues to argue that “that every single institution involved in the dispute is able to pay staff more than the five per cent our members have rejected.”

We’ve been round the houses many times on sector finances, and the applicability of capital funds and “surpluses” to the pay of staff, and the rising costs of universities doing pretty much anything.

What is beginning to emerge at a local level – as exemplified by the joint statement between the UCU branch executive and vice chancellor at the University of York Charlie Jeffery – is a position where it is agreed that staff deserve to be paid more, and the universities need more money to be able to do so. Here we also find a focus on longer term thinking about pay, with both sides of the dispute keen to avoid annual industrial action.

Though the data we have in the public domain on 2021-22 universities finances is not an easy read I suspect the data on 2022-23 and 2023-24 will be even scarier – this is a key driver in the parallel debate on the future of higher education funding. The ongoing fee freeze (and home student related income freeze) is a big factor here, representing a large real-terms cut in the income of many universities.

It’s also important to consider recent trends in student recruitment, which have seen some providers grow beyond their capacity and others shrink to the point of non-viability. UCU has hinted at support for student number controls to constrain this trend. However, the chances of a significant increase in university income from home fees appears slim – and the recent rise in international postgraduate fee income, given recent changes to dependant eligibility and continued hawkishness regarding China, seems likely to falter as well.

It is, in other words, it’s a particularly bleak outlook for the sector and those who work in it, and there are unlikely to be any easy or quick answers.

7 responses to “The 2023 marking and assessment boycott, explained

  1. Nevermind the MAB. We are still trying to deal with hundreds of complaints relating to the industrial action. Every morning my legs are like jelly as I open Outlook.

  2. An admirable attempt at a summary…. well done.

    While USS agreement is certainly a step forward, we do need to remember that it only applies to around a quarter of staff employed in the sector, around three quarters are in other pension schemes.

    An independent financial review of the sector should clearly be the priority to determine the affordability issue, but what other efforts is the sector making to avoid cutting pay in real terms? Obviously a freeze on VC pay alone is not going to pay for it, but we all know that senior management teams have become very bloated, overpaid and expensive in recent years – a sector wide downsizing, a management comparability exercise with NHS/civil service/local government, and an early retirement programme, now that USS is sorted, is surely in order? And while capital reserves are certainly needed for significant continuing IT investment (though leasing still remains an increasingly viable option and the line of travel of the industry), what is the point of saving up for new shiny teaching buildings with lecture theatres and classrooms in these post-pandemic days? The UK HE estate is massively better than it was several decades ago and has a few more decades of life left in it in most circumstances, but it still sits empty for more than half the year and surely the only purpose of new investment in buildings these days should be to reduce energy usage which should be costed to more than pay for itself in the standard lifetime calculations? Overseas campuses and cost of supporting them? Is this really an exercise in income generation or self-aggrandisement – isn’t it time to end the arms race cycle of “look at us, we’ve got a shiny campus in Dubai/etc – we must really be an ‘international’ player” … and go back to long term collaboration with fellow international institutions?

    By the way, in relation to “undergraduates reaching the end of their full-time three year courses”, in Scotland it is four years to honours degree. I’m genuinely gobsmacked that the university leadership at a certain Glasgow institution is offering four year honours graduates an ‘interim’ ordinary degree that people who left after three years last year got, in a subject title they have never studied! This sort of thing appears to be included in UCEA’s ridiculous attempt to pretend everything is normal and the strike is having no impact! It’s utterly foolish and the sector leadership needs to call time on tactics like this.

  3. The editorial gloss of this articulated circulated by email claims, without any argument, that universities no more want to keep pay low than academics want to harm students, which is irresponsible and not appropriate for a website which claims to be data driven. First of all, it is just not the sort of thing WONKHE could have any evidence for; I mean, think of what WONKHE would have to have done in order for this claim to be substantiated. It is absurd to think that WONKHE has the evidence it would need to have to assert this claim. Moreover, if one had to take a guess, in the absence of evidence, the claim itself is implausible. Academics would have to be sadists to wish to harm students, whereas universities, like all business, want to keep labour costs as low as they can get away with. Most academics also have an obvious record of largesse toward students, doing all sorts of extra work to help them in their studies. I have never heard of a university just voluntarily raising staff pay higher than it needs to out of generosity and concern.

    I imagine WONKHE has said this because it doesn’t want to take a stand on the dispute, but it’s just bad journalism to think that neutrality requires that one make unsubstantiated equivalences between parties in a dispute.

    The other thing that WONKHE is missing in this is the serious impact pay is having on recruitment and retention in Russell Group universities, especially the best of them, which compete internationally for academic staff. In my department, the last three searches ended up offering the job to the 3rd or 4th ranked candidate because the higher ranked candidates found the salary simply laughable (although they were polite enough not to laugh). And one of my senior colleagues just left the university last year because she received an offer from overseas that paid her 2.25 x her salary here. The rich universities are happy to use the economic position of the poor universities as an excuse for doing nothing on pay, but they are killing themselves because it is just ridiculous trying to recruit professors and chairs while offering a salary substantially *lower* than entry level academic posts (e.g. lectureships) in the US and Canada.

    1. It’s not straightforward to compare UK academic pay internationally. In the case of the US, a lot depends on the level of the appointment and where the University is located. Tenure in the US, for example, is still very competitive and takes upwards of five years. Probation and progression in the UK is more straightforward. Although US taxes are much lower, living costs can be far higher. Moreover, if you have children, then further down the track they will lose entitlement to access the student loan company and could be looking at very high fees unless the institution you join has a Faculty discount and/or this forms part of the negotiated benefits package. At the ‘top level’, teaching duties and Departmental service may be light and your colleague could have benefitted from this type of offer. More generally, teaching workload and student expectations vary widely within the US and could well be a considerable step up from UK levels. There are also not that many attractive options open to UK academics closer to home. Many EU Universities do not have competitive and open hiring practices – patronage is often endemic. Tax rates in the Irish Republic are significantly higher than in the UK. Finally, a significant salary differential at senior level between the US and the UK would actually work to the advantage of UK academics, surely. It would result in more UK academics progressing to senior rank appointments than would otherwise be the case.

      1. yes it’s not straightforward to compare them, but it is not impossible either. I agree with some of your points but others seem cherry picked. E.g. “living costs [in the US] can be far higher”. Sure, but they can also be far lower! Lots of places in the US are far cheaper to live than London or even Edinburgh for that matter, and that includes places with major research universities. Moreover I was discussing recruitment and retention in leading Russell group universities (which, unlike less prestigious universities, compete internationally for academics), and some of your points, as you note, aren’t very relevant if we look at the more elite US and Canadian institutions. Eg tuition is cheap in Canada and major US universities usually pay tuition fees for children of academic staff, either at that university or elsewhere (private universities are more generous than the public ones though). Finally on your last point, I myself don’t see any evidence that more UK academics progress to senior ranks. I can see why you’d think that, but it seems to assume there is the same pot of money available for salaries here and in the US/Canada, and that just doesn’t seem right. This is most obvious in the case of the rich US private universities, but even a newly minted PhD who gets hired at, say, the University of Toronto probably makes around $120,000 CDN (or more), in their first year, which is well above what a professor makes here at the bottom of the professor rung.

        The main thing I wanted to emphasise is that the UCEA — and WONKHE — often talk as if there is just a national labour market for academics, as if ‘the sector’ that matters, the only one, is the UK one. And that is just not true for the leading research universities, especially in some disciplines.

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