Why isn’t the MAB making a difference?

One of the things I’ve been talking to people about in recent weeks is why arguably the biggest marking and assessment boycott since the mid noughties hasn’t yet resulted in progress.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Intense yet overall patchy participation, both across the sector and within universities, clearly hasn’t helped. The MAB very much feels bigger in pockets than it does across the country.

The forced conversion of what used to be seen as action short of a strike into what is now effectively framed as (and penalised as) a strike via pay deductions has probably depressed some participation.

And it remains the case that employers at least privately argue that while some in the national pay might be able to afford a larger increase, others are in the throes of redundancy programmes – and moving money around the sector isn’t a straightforward demand in practice.

From a student perspective, a MAB sharpens the question over what counts as the student interest. Even ardent activists whose instinct has been to regard staff working conditions as student learning conditions have, at times, struggled to hold the line in the face of international students facing the prospect of not being able to apply to the graduate route.

There have been some national initiatives to mitigate the impact which some would regard as strike breaking – UKVI allowing international students to apply for the graduate route pending their results, prospective trainee teachers able to start courses even if they’re degree is delayed, and the Institute of Student Employers asking to its members to take the action into account.

We might argue that there are three student rights in play here. On the one hand there’s the broad right to teachers and teaching (and supervision and support) that is well funded and of high quality. On the other hand, there are the rights to graduate (in good time) and to graduate with an award that accurately and fairly reflects your work and achievements.

Hence tactics from universities that mix bringing in other markers, delaying marking (in some cases issuing provisional results and allowing participation in ceremonies) and in some cases putting in place regulations that allow for the issuance of awards on a “no detriment” style basis.

But do these tactics threaten or deliver on those rights?

On many campuses, a war of words has arisen in the inboxes of SU officers. Universities stress that they are acting in the student interest by taking steps that minimise disruption. Branches argue that those steps devalue students’ degrees. And SU officers are caught in the crossfire.

By way of an example, as well as staging strikes over “punitive” pay deductions, one of the latest tactics to emerge has been for branches to notify OfS over weakening academic standards.

But I have a feeling that that, as previously, that is likely to be wishful thinking.

In its insight brief on consumer protection law, OfS attempts to straddle both types of student right in play:

We have reminded providers affected by the ongoing marking and assessment boycott in June 2023 to ensure that students are not disadvantaged, that they can graduate or progress on time where this is appropriate in academic terms, and that any degree awarded accurately reflects a student’s academic achievement. Where they cannot ensure this is the case, we have said that we expect there to be proactive engagement with the students directly affected to ensure they understand when they will receive assessment outcomes and are informed of the full range of options available to them.

That’s a position that is expanded on a bit in this letter that it’s been sending to providers, they key bit of which is:

We expect that providers affected by the ongoing marking and assessment boycott will be working to ensure that:

  1. Students are not disadvantaged.

2. Students can graduate or progress on time where this is appropriate in academic terms.

3. Any degree awarded accurately reflects a students’ academic achievement

The big question is the way in which “where this is appropriate in academic terms” might apply.

Where universities are applying “non detriment” style mitigations, it’s hard for branches and especially hard for SUs to argue that these represent a collapse in academic standards when they were good enough for the pandemic – especially when students were repeatedly told “no refunds” on the basis that they’d not experienced detriment in that context.

That said I would add in passing that I suspect universities deploying such tactics may have underestimated quite how devastating it is to complete a final year dissertation only to have it not taken into account in some cases. For many of those students the diss and the result for it is on a rite of passage par with the graduation ceremony itself.

More broadly, OfS has long been on record as regarding things like the external examiner system as unnecessary – remember it managed to run an entire review on quality and standards without so much as even mentioning the external examining system – and has never seemed especially interested in the comparatively low score that its own NSS generates every year on “marking and assessment has been fair”.

It certainly hasn’t, as far as I’m aware, taken the opportunity to liaise with the QAA and the CMA to clarify what the sector recognised standards of “reasonable care and skill” might look like in the context of the service students should expect when being marked and assessed.

In England and Wales the OIAHE would likely focus on disruption. And the QAA’s advice also frames “enabling students to progress” as the motivator goal, with academic standards as the hygiene factor that can get a little dirty if the progress can be enabled.

As such we might draw a distinction between the active pressures on the system from regulators and policymakers, and the baseline requirements on the system – the difference between the fuel tank and the accelerator pedal, and the airbag and braking system.

Many will argue that as well as worsening the relationship between universities and their staff, some tactics water down high academic standards. The problem is that for those who are increasingly charged with making those judgements, the temporary standards appear to be… good enough.

6 responses to “Why isn’t the MAB making a difference?

  1. Boycotts are often described as the weapon of the weak for a reason. In this particular case, UCU do not look to be in an especially strong position.

    From the outset, polling indicated negative public support for the strike and the dispute has the lowest approval rating in the youth demographic of any current dispute. This indicates relatively low reputational risk for Universities should they opt to withhold pay from employees taking industrial action. In a number of Universities, the UCU also lacks support from student unions.

    Union coverage is limited and Universities have recent experience of graduating students flexibly during the pandemic. UCU’s dispute has also highlighted academics on insecure contracts. One effect of this will be for some UCU members to carry on working normally as they will view industrial action from a risk adverse perspective.

    1. As my UCU branch chair once described the UCU “it’s little more than an over sized school boy debating society at times”, and as some of the hard-left branches are always spoiling for a fight rather off putting for some.

      The current undertones between 2023 congress motions 5 & 6 haven’t done the UCU any favours either.

      Local UCU on MAB:
      Call for the University of REDACTED to end marking mitigation and pressure on staff.
      REDACTED UCU notes:
      1. The University of REDACTED has responded to the impact of the Marking and Assessment Boycott by expecting colleagues not participating in MAB and/or not in the union to take on significant extra marking. By adding to colleagues’ already excessive workloads at a particularly busy time of year, REDACTED is thereby exacerbating one of the central issues of the dispute.
      2. The University of REDACTED is using mitigation procedures to graduate finalists whose marks records are incomplete due to the MAB by contravening the quality assurances and standards that the university has long claimed are integral to the value of a REDACTED degree instead of calling on UCEA to end the MAB by returning to negotiations.
      REDACTED UCU believes that using mitigation procedures that allow for awarding degrees with missing marks and with Pass/Fail marks for dissertations devalues a REDACTED degree and brings the university’s reputation into disrepute.
      We also call on the university to stop requiring staff who already have heavy workloads to take on additional marking at this busy and pressurised time of year with very tight turnaround times for marking deadlines and release dates.

  2. There are some parallels between pandemic-era no detriment policies and some of the steps being taken in response to the MAB, but there are important differences as well. With no detriment policies students usually had to pass all modules according to the normal requirements (the caveat being any provisions for condonation/compensation) and thereby demonstrate all the learning outcomes, even if not all marks were then counted towards the final classification. Where arrangements are in place due to the MAB to award and classify without all the marks, this raises the possibility of students graduating while not having passed all modules and therefore demonstrating all the learning outcomes.

    1. There is another difference. During the pandemic, the people who taught the students still were making the call on quality in the assessments, whether learning outcomes were met, etc. Whereas now we see staff with no expertise marking work, meaning that the outcomes will have an increased dependent on things like writing quality over knowledge of the subject.

  3. As said above, there are similarities and differences. In the pandemic, students were typically classified with pandemic affected assessments discounted, or other ‘best of X credits’ approaches, which could significantly increase higher class awards (as students were given 2+ classifications and the higher was used). That was coupled with a switch from physical to online assessments which saw, in some instances, significantly higher pass rates and higher marks overall. The former contributed to the significant grade inflation seen in 2019-20 and 2020-21; the latter did the same *and* ensured that some students passed assessments they would otherwise have failed.

    With the MAB, variations in markers and moderation undoubtedly increases the risk that marking will be less accurate, and assessing on partial credit risks awards being made even where Programme outcomes/credit expectations have not (and potentially will not) be met. No detriment style policies risk grade inflation. The same two risks are present even if they aren’t present in the same proportions.

    My guess is that we’re looking at less ‘grade inflation’ than we saw in the pandemic but a higher risk that students who would have failed will get degrees.

    The other major difference is the tension. In the pandemic everyone was pulling in the same direction, whereas this time there’s an unsurprising battle over whether emergency regulations and workarounds should be enacted at all. There are a myriad of reasons why someone could oppose MAB-related emergency regulations (protection of academic standards is undoubtedly one, even if it means an inflexibility that wasn’t seen in the pandemic; but so is maximising the impact of MAB), but I think the additional pressure this generates is as likely to weaken standards (as the chance of error increases, and I think it makes more radical approaches more likely), as it is to protect it.

    I think it’s interesting that, having been pretty silent on this, the OfS now appears to be leading with a focus on student rights, rather than academic standards.

  4. Is it surprising the OfS would focus on student rights ahead of academic standards? They likely appreciate the financial drivers at the heart of the dispute more clearly than most players.

    Empowering UCU risks a settlement that is unsustainable for some institutions in the long term. The sector (and UCU members) could debate where the balance of interests lies on greater conditions for staff in general vs terrible outcomes for staff at the most precarious providers. But OfS’ interest in sector stability, happily aligning with their interests in student rights here, is likely a much cleaner question for them at least.

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