Marking boycott campuses ‘playing fast and loose’ with standards

Liverpool and Leicester plan to scale back moderation and external examining, and to use algorithms to generate grades

June 18, 2021
Person marking an error on a page with red marker
Source: iStock
Academic editing ranges in quality from good to hopeless

UK universities riven by industrial action have been accused of unfairly penalising students during academic marking boycotts.

The universities of Liverpool and Leicester were pressing ahead with plans to provide students with end-of-year grades despite the University and College Union-led boycotts coinciding with end-of-year assessments. Students have pointed out that they often get their highest marks in their last exams, and have raised concerns that their final classification might be negatively affected.

UCU members participating in the action at both institutions have been told that they will have their pay withheld as the boycott constitutes partial performance.

Liverpool’s marking boycott began on 18 June, following three weeks of strike action, over planned redundancies in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences.

University guidance seen by Times Higher Education says that if marks are not submitted by 5 July, second marking and moderation of students’ work will be suspended, and non-specialist external examiners could be used to ratify scores across disciplines.

In a letter to the vice-chancellor, Dame Janet Beer, the Liverpool Guild of Students said the plan was “causing unnecessary stress for students and risks posing a detrimental impact to students completing their studies this year”.

David Whyte, vice-president of Liverpool’s UCU branch, said the university was “prepared to press the nuclear button and risk its international reputation” rather than guaranteeing the 24 jobs at risk. Liverpool was “playing fast and loose with the quality and consistency of student assessment”, he said, adding: “The proposal to bypass the external examination system is unprecedented in UK universities.”

A university spokesman said the marking boycott “has the potential to cause significant undue stress and disruption to our students”.

“We appreciate that the decision to take [action short of a strike] will not be taken lightly. Nonetheless, we hope we can continue to support our students and avoid undue disruption,” the spokesman said.

At Leicester, where UCU members have been boycotting marking since May over plans to cut jobs, the deadline for scores to be submitted was 16 June and any “gaps” will be “filled by the university (not the school) board of examiners algorithmically”, according to a letter sent to staff in the School of Biological Sciences.

Cara Dobbing, communications officer-elect of Leicester’s UCU branch, said the university’s actions “show they don’t care about students’ marks, just ensuring they’ve got the fees”.

“What is happening at both Leicester and Liverpool sets a dangerous precedent,” she said.

Graham Wynn, pro vice-chancellor (education) at Leicester, said the majority of student work had been assessed and that the institution was “in the process of reassigning any unmarked work to new markers”.

“Our priority is to ensure that our finalists can graduate and take the next steps in their journey, and that current students receive their outcomes for this academic year. At this point, we do not expect any significant delay to the conferral of degrees or the quality and standards of our awards to be impacted,” Professor Wynn said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

The managers will probably come up with a formula like ...find the highest mark the student has achieved then add 10% and grade all missing module marks that way. The students won't complain and walk away with better degrees than they might have expected. The managers are interested in reducing student complaints and not getting sued not in academic standards or real student attainment.

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