What are students’ rights over MAB mitigations?

Where non-participating staff in a department can’t be found to cover those taking action, types of tactic have emerged to mitigate the impacts of the UCU marking and assessment boycott (MAB).

The first is to delay, usually with an offer of a provisional award of some kind. I discussed some of the issues with that sort of delay to performance on Monday.

But the other has been to draft in markers – often anonymous to both the student and the academics on a programme – to get marking done.

The anonymity generates a trust problem – because even with assurances, the suspicion will be that the markers aren’t subject specialists and so lack the requisite expertise (or indeed “skill and care” to carry out the marking properly.

In some cases universities appear to have been drafting in PhD students to undertake marking – a practice that has come in for some criticism (including from UCU Gen Sec Jo Grady), despite the fact that in many parts of the sector, marking is routinely carried out in this way.

As well as the marking, there’s the question of feedback. Students often don’t want, need or ever see feedback on final summative assessment – but plenty do (on, say, dissertations) and there’s plenty of marking at earlier stages, much of which impacts progression.

Social media is now starting to come alight with examples of the feedback students have been getting on assessed work. Anecdotes are anecdotes, but many of the examples being shared don’t exactly inspire trust in the revised arrangements.

I’ve seen at least one provider already argue that feedback isn’t contractual and that the MAB is an act of god anyway. I discussed the latter the other day – on the former those providers really ought to read their CMA guidance.

Of course, satisfaction with assessment and feedback isn’t the sector’s strong suit in general on the National Student Survey. But if what looks like rudimentary one line feedback is widespread, at least in England it looks like a textbook B Conditions fail.

Of course, access to and understanding of text books isn’t always universal…

B1 has things to say about staff, with examples to demonstrating the approach it may take to the interpretation of the condition:

  • A staff team comprised solely of inexperienced teachers [and so by implication markers] is not likely to be appropriately qualified.
  • A staff team in which none of the individuals hold a teaching qualification or have been trained to undertake teaching [and so by implication marking] is not likely to be appropriately qualified.
  • A staff team that is over-reliant on visiting teachers to deliver large or significant elements of a course [and so by implication delivery can mean asses, mark and grade] is not likely to be appropriately qualified.
  • A staff team that does not conduct research at the forefront of relevant discipline(s) is not likely to be appropriately qualified to provide supervision [and so by implication assessment, grading and feedback] to research students.

B2 has things to say about feedback:

  • For example, assessment activities not being scheduled to consolidate students’ learning, or feedback not sufficient or timely to support learning, would likely be of concern.
  • [We would have concerns if a cohort of students ] does not receive timely and high quality feedback that supports students to engage with their course and understand subject content, as appropriate to the course

And B4 has examples of what OfS would and wouldn’t consider to be effective assessment:

  • Feedback not returned in time for students to learn from it before the next assessment would likely be of concern.
  • Selection of examiners for research students in a way that does not preserve academic rigour would likely be of concern.

It also discusses assessment credibility and reliability.

If we’re talking credibility, it’s not really… credible for OfS to wang on about grade inflation on the basis of reliability of and long term value of awards, but not interrogate what’s happening here over the MAB.

It’s both a consumer right to have the marking / feedback “service” delivered in a way that’s timely and with reasonable care and skill, and an academic right to get good feedback that supports learning.

Above all else the sector’s ability to dismiss out of hand complaints from students on the basis of academic judgement is seriously and fatally undermined if the quality of feedback is sending signals about the quality of marking.

Confidence that those complaints must be and should be ignored is literally based on demonstrably competent markers and moderation.

If OfS blind-eyes this sort of thing it ends up seriously undermining the sector that it’s supposed to be regulating.

As I’ve said on here before, given Assessment and Feedback consistently gets the highest “active disagree” scores on the National Student Survey, it ought to be OfS’ top priority as an education regulator generally. And as such this kind of stuff ought to be the ultimate alarm bell on the quality dashboard right now specifically.

Naturally, it’s not really said anything about the MAB – and what it has said focuses more on disruption than quality. Time for some boots on the ground!

Outside of England, the QAA-style focus on enhancement comes into sharp focus too. There is a tendency to start by assuming that higher education is good and that quality processes are mainly there to make things even better.

That framing and culture deprioritises the second A of the QAA – which doesn’t feel like it’s about to send in some clipboards even if some students or academics formally express concern(s). Plenty of students look the opposite of assured right now.

What’s that you say? Students can’t challenge marking anyway because of academic judgement? Almost. ​​While we are indeed familiar with the idea that a student can’t challenge academic judgement, claims can also allege the use of negligent teaching methods – and so by implication assessment methods.

In Faiz Siddiqui v University of Oxford, the legal note on duty of care from a few weeks ago reminded us that the “reasonable care and skill” standard that would apply, and the standard in any kind of case is that of the “reasonably competent” professional education provider.

That’s why a claim that the University of Oxford had failed to ensure adequate resources were available to ensure a course was taught properly was allowed to proceed – because it was about “the insufficiency of teaching capacity and the alleged failure to remedy that” rather than “an attack on a conscious choice of teaching style.”

Then there’s moderation. There are all sorts of questions about how that’s being done, who it’s being done by, and the extent to which it is being done – again with reasonable care and skill. Whatever form it takes, moderation is one of the ways that universities are able to argue they maintain standards and bat off appeals over academic judgement.

In a context where their confidence in the process has been knocked, students ought to know in more detail than normal who’s marked their work, and the way in which it’s being moderated – but in many cases I’m hearing that students are only being given vague sentences asking students in effect to “trust us” without being able to verify that they can and should. That won’t really do.

There’s also mitigating or extenuating circumstances, which is an important component of the assessment process. For obvious reasons in many cases students are being told that these will be taken into account as and when their work is actually marked, which will pile stress and pressure on top of the reason for submitting those circumstances in the first place.

And students that are being told either that they can only make a complaint when the industrial action is over, or if they have have been adversely impacted by the action and the mitigations around it appear to be being given advice specifically designed to reduce legitimate complaints.

OIA has repeatedly made clear that it takes a dim view of the former. And you don’t need to be crying in a corner to exercise your rights to a service being carried out both as promised and with reasonable care and skill (although it helps).

What we’re really getting at here is that students do have the right to raise questions about and form judgements about whether mitigations put in place to handle the MAB are legal, academically sound and meet their learning needs. They also, even in a revised scenario, have the right to some minimums and to get redress if those minimums are not met.

But OIA has no case summaries on MABs and doesn’t mention them in its guide to compensation, OfS has said very little about how the Bs would apply here, CMA has said zip all, HEFCW and SFC haven’t offered any clarity and QAA isn’t exactly adorning students with information on what they should be able to expect either. And SUs are flying blind.

As suggested on OfS’ consumer rights call last week, I’ll give the CAB a call later to see if they have a scooby. I doubt it, don’t you?

3 responses to “What are students’ rights over MAB mitigations?

  1. Interesting points here. One thing though.

    “As I’ve said on here before, given Assessment and Feedback consistently gets the highest “active disagree” scores on the National Student Survey, it ought to be OfS’ top priority as an education regulator generally.”

    One priority might be to introduce an instrument that is valid and allows for meaningful follow up research on assessment and feedback. Anyone responding to NSS scores with a view to improving is also, most likely, “flying blind”.

  2. The Oxford case is rightly cited re Us being legally obliged to field the reasonable competent lecturer/marker/examiner – not a paragon of professorial professionalism but reasonably competent by norms across Us generally (which might well mean the legitimate use of grads and adjunct staff, not solely permanent f/t experienced staff).

    And there is the interesting 2009 Cardiff U case where the Court did lift the protective veil of supposed expert academic judgement and was far from impressed by the vast range of marks (40 to 71 – sic) a number of examiners (4) came up with for the claimant’s exam script in Criminal Law – discussed in Farrington & Palfreyman on The Law of Higher Education (Oxford University Press, third edn, 2021) at pp 470/471.

    Way back in 1994 David Warren Piper wrote a book on ‘Are Professors Professional?’ when it comes to examining and assessment, and it seems the answer 30 years later might, sadly, still be ‘Not Very’!

  3. Good summary.

    “HEFCW and SFC haven’t offered any clarity… ”

    which is very disappointing given the claims of their political masters about being better at settling disputes than the omnishambles at Westminster.

    I’ve heard a slogan up here in Scotland is

    “Graham Dey, M – I – A”

    [for those in England’s benefit, Dey is the new Minister for Higher and Further Education appointed in March and widely regarded in both the FE and HE sector as currently “M.I.A.” (“Missing in Action”)].

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