Universities seek to blunt UK tagging boycott

UK universities may outsource tagging to help deal with a planned boycott as vice-chancellors make last-ditch offers to persuade staff not to participate.

Some academics who refuse to set or grade assignments and exams have also been told by their institutions that they could lose 100% of their salary for each day the action – amid long-running disputes over the salaries, pensions and working conditions – is taking place.

But alongside attempts by managers to mitigate the disruption, internal divisions over tactics within the University and College Union (UCU) and the fact that a lot of markings had already been made meant that it was not unclear how effective the boycott would be as it unfolds. way this week.

Only 21 of the 44 sections that won a mandate in the last round of voting choose to participate in the boycott, with some postponing it. Some branches that participated said Times Higher Education that only a small number of employees were expected to join them.

Concerns over loss of student support and staff fatigue after 13 days of strike action already this year have been seen as one of the reasons some have dropped out.

“The proposed branding boycott is not being implemented by all the chapters that have the mandate because the members are broke and broke. At many institutions much of the grading and evaluation will already be done,” said a branch secretary, who asked to remain anonymous.

Roger Seifert, emeritus professor of industrial relations at the University of Wolverhampton, said a tagging boycott has “always potentially been the most effective form of action outside of a strike” but “remains problematic” because of many employees are not involved and the “burden of action falls”. on the shoulders of the few.

The contract marking is said to have been discussed at Queen Mary University of London, where the boycott began early on May 19 amid a local dispute over pay deductions for staff taking part in a industrial action.

Politics professor James Eastwood, president of the local UCU branch, said officials were considering using Australian higher education consultancy Curio Group to grade the essays.

A spokesperson for the university did not deny this, saying the institution “will continue to use a series of measures to mitigate any impact of the industrial action”. Curio said his work was “commercially sensitive”, but stressed that “academic quality and standards are extremely important to us and to our partner universities”.

But Dr Eastwood cautioned that outside staff may not be familiar enough with course content or grading criteria.

“Even if they were highly qualified, which I’m not sure they can guarantee, there would be so much concern about the implications of bringing in outsiders to grade the work,” he said. .

Other universities planned to ease the disruption by bringing back emergency regulations last used during the pandemic. Edinburgh University leaders met last week to discuss possible changes, including changing the minimum number of credits a student needs to progress, removing a target for giving feedback on work within 15 days of submission and modification of quority levels during jury meetings.

In a last-minute attempt to avoid the boycott, Durham University has sought to resolve disputes locally by offering staff a one-off ‘thank you payment’ of £1,000 each as well as action on other student concerns. ‘UCU.

The offer – which was voted on by union members – would also commit Durham and its UCU branch to a joint statement calling for a reassessment of the Universities Superannuation Scheme pension fund.

This follows similar statements released by Glasgow and Loughborough Universities which sought to address concerns over the 2020 assessment which led to cuts to membership benefits.

The UCU also chose not to call a 10-day strike that 40 branches voted for, “except in branches that specifically request to take them.” It was “in response to overwhelming feedback from sections,” said general secretary Jo Grady.

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