Could the marking and assessment boycott break the magician’s code?

Much of the public debate surrounding the kick off of today’s national marking and assessment boycott has concerned which bit of UCU is in control of the ongoing pay and conditions dispute.

But as well as shenanigans about who gets to tell who what to do and when, and differences of opinion over whether the tactic will improve the offer, the MAB does raise a bunch of wider issues that deserve a brief airing.

Given that large numbers of providers appear to be threatening 50 or in some cases 100 per cent pay deductions for participation in the MAB, as well as the questions that surround the legality of that tactic and how it’s being implemented, there’s the question of whether the money if withheld will later be given back – and if not, where it will go.

One relatively unreported aspect of this year’s disputes more broadly is that where it used to be common for SUs to agree that withheld wages would be put into student hardship funds or free graduation gowns or whatnot, this year there’s been an almost complete collapse of those sorts of commitments.

Maybe providers thought they’d already budgeted a lot for hardship, even in a cost of living crisis. Maybe providers thought the scale of the dispute this year meant it would be too much to allocate to such a fund. Maybe providers are banking on being able to keep the money.

The MAB also raises questions about quality and standards. I’ve moaned about the Office for Students’ approach to industrial action on here before, suffice to say that the huge concerns students will have about who’s marking their work, how, and when, are not exactly generously addressed in its boilerplate briefing note, which just says:

Any changes made to examinations or other assessments should not disadvantage students, while also maintaining standards

That question about who a university will get in to do the marking if the MAB hits a particular department or faculty hard is a fascinating one when there’s large scale participation in a MAB.

For a start there’ll be a shortage of folks to draft in from elsewhere. And when exam boards roll around, while UCU members can’t refuse to be external examiners on the basis of this mandate (different employer, see), they can always just refuse without a reason.

Whether the WhatsApp groups are indeed alive with that kind of action will likely emerge later in the process.

But more broadly, regular readers will know that what continues to baffle me is that if more was made of consumer protection law, where students were able to bring to a head issues surrounding the disruption, disputes would be over sooner.

And that’s surely as true over marking and assessment as it is over lost teaching.

The other day I was talking to a group of student officers about the MAB, and the issue of Generative-AI came up – one of them had been in a meeting where senior staff were speculating out loud whether (a least in the future) a large language model might be trained on papers that got Firsts, 2:1s etc and then do the marking automatically.

For some of the gathered student reps concerned about marking consistency, the idea was enthusiastically received. Others weighed up the time and workload saver with the strike breaker motivations. Some thought it could work in the same way that pre-screening works at the opticians these days. Some thought the days of the essay are dead anyway. Some were just plain horrified.

Of course all of the reactions were about what could happen in the future, when it’s now that really matters. And right now it’s hard to be on social media without seeing some academic staff reveal the paucity of time they are given to mark an individual piece of work.

But here’s the thing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Surely workload models that give academics 20 minutes to mark an essay would fail the “reasonable care and skill” test in court?

I don’t think it’s ever happened, but imagine a university pitching up in court and trying to argue to the judge (who’s probably spent a morning leisurely reading case papers) that you can read, grade and give effective feedback on a 2k word essay in 20 minutes flat. Best of luck lads!

Being able to exercise the magical and unchallengeable powers of academic judgement literally depends on the marking and grading “service” being carried out with reasonable care and skill. But how, on 20 minutes a pop?

Those magical powers then also tend to depend on moderation being carried out both internally and externally – in a way that looks increasingly hard to deliver here in 2023.

Yes, I know it’s all similar for staff in the NHS. But users of the NHS aren’t routinely protected by consumer protection law, and compensation claims for negligence very much are a feature of NHS budgets. Could it be that an ideological resistance to the “consumer” framing of student protection prevents enthusiastic enforcement of a standard that would assist staff trying to secure a better set of workload assumptions?

It certainly all feels like we’re in the last days of disco when it comes to assessment, from all sorts of angles. At the very least, if the sector is about to have its Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed moment, that will change the game on student complaints.

4 responses to “Could the marking and assessment boycott break the magician’s code?

  1. Great piece & your insight into marking & feedback is spot on. Academic rigour & effective moderation of marking are seriously challenged by giving 20 minutes per student per script. It’s just become a sausage factory, sadly…….
    Don’t get me started on assessing a 20 credit module in 2,500 words either…..

    1. Agree completely about the 20 minutes. However, making some assumptions about what you would say about 2,500 words if you did get started, I’ll just point out that writing short and good is a much harder, and more useful, skill than writing long and good.

  2. Exactly right, Jim. The student-consumer has been failed by consumer protection law, mainly because of the sparse, fuzzy, one-sided version of a U-S contract – time for a robust comprehensive fair standardised U-S contract that can be enforced by the S? Perhaps the potential group-litigation will help clarify the U-S legal relationship? And, yes, in theory Ss being able to put pressure on Us to ensure proper service delivery should help academics gain better working conditions in order to fulfil the U’s contractual obligations…

  3. The student consumer has been failed not by consumer protection law but by a combination of the economics of running a university and adherence to outmoded forms of assessment. The judge may have spent a leisurely morning reviewing legal documents. If there were hundreds of such documents to review on that morning, there would need to be more judges. With the fee cap on undergraduate tuition, universities can’t afford to have more staff to undertake the leisurely marking and return erudite comments. As it happens, the traditional forms of assessment are, in any case, ill-suited to assessing actual capabilities for using knowledge in a realistic work situation. Simulations, serious games, group exercises are all not only more “self-assessing” but worth more as a test of student capability. If the traditional assessment practices are much-loved by academics, notwithstanding their limited real-life value, the protests should not be against universities but the government. More subsidies or higher fee levels are the solution, not marking boycotts.

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