To graduate or not to graduate?  

The marking boycott, the risk it poses to young people (deportation, homelessness) and the inequality among university responses.

I am a final-year student currently studying Politics and International Relations (BSc) at the University of Bath. I began my academic career here in 2019, and it has been a bumpy ride. I have lost a total of 36 days to strike action, and my entire second year to Covid-19.

The University is not obliged to pay striking lecturers, so they make a “profit” on strike days. That is not how striking is supposed to work. When a train is cancelled due to striking and you have a ticket, that ticket is refunded. That is a contractual obligation of the company. In most instances, the same goes for paid education:  a dance lesson, a private language lesson, a music lesson. The teacher doesn’t turn up? Refunded for the session. 

I have been in contact with my Vice-Chancellor. I say, “in contact”, I mean I have emailed him directly three times and received a response from an external email address (queriesindustrialaction) pointing me to the FAQ page “on his behalf” with no proof of engagement with the contents of my email. Unfortunately, universities get away with nearly anything due to the vulnerability of their consumers; the young and often unemployed lacking the disposable income and support required to kick up a fuss.

Finally, we get to the marking boycott. The back-breaking straw. Here is a line from the Bath SU statement:

“Students who have not received their final award at the time of the ceremony will be provided with a letter explaining their situation, instead of a certificate.”

I do not know if you, the reader, have graduated from university at some point in your life. Perhaps you are too young or perhaps you chose a different path (perhaps you were smarter than me). However, a diploma tends to be an essential part of the ceremony. Sure, the bells and whistles that come in the form of ceremonial dress, speeches and old buildings are good fun, but they are not the point of graduation. To stand, walk across a stage and receive a letter rather than a diploma to celebrate three or four years of hard work is, quite frankly, insulting, and cruel. I do not think this is something that has ever happened before, and I hope that it will not happen again. It is going to be excruciating. It is going to happen to me and my peers. I know that. My unit conveners have been open with me: three out of the four of my second-semester module marks will not come back unless the boycott is called off. My dissertation marker/supervisor is also partaking. I understand why, and I respect them and their decision, but it does not absolve them of responsibility. The governors drove them to it, but they did it. I am aware of who holds all the power, and it is not the individual lecturers, but they have still hurt me and my academic career regardless of motive. I will not graduate this July primarily because of the actions of  universities, but also the UCU members. After supporting the strikes through gritted teeth with no rebate, it feels like a smack in the face. It feels like neither party care for the students.

Outside of the graduation ceremony – which seems to be as far as the UCU and the University have looked – there comes the “what-next” quagmire:

I often wonder about universities and short-sightedness. Do we cease to exist once we graduate? Surely not, for the University of Bath brags regularly regarding its graduate employment rate (92.2% in high-skilled employment, among the most employable in the UK!). So why have they not thought about us, about the risk this poses to our graduate jobs or further academia as final-year students? What happens when July and graduation have been and gone? The marking boycott is for six months beginning 20th April 2023. So it will not end until October. The University of Bath’s solution to those lacking transcripts has been to award “interim” grades to those affected by the boycott.

 Here are two explanatory lines from the official University of Bath industrial action- information for undergraduate finalists(password protected and accessible only by those with a UOB account due to what I can only assume is embarrassment regarding their handling of the situation):

“For some assessments, it may only be possible to determine that you have met the pass threshold. These assessments will be given an interim mark of the pass mark.”

“For some assessments, it may not be possible to determine any marks at this point. These assessments will be given an interim mark of 0.”

Essentially, if one or more of your assignments is to be assessed by a boycotting member of staff, your result will either be a 40 (third class honours) or a 0 (failed/unmarked). This will drag down a number of averages with significant consequences. This is not a consistent reaction. The University of Warwick is offering to graduating students who are impacted their average overall grade on unmarked assignments, which can then only increase when they are marked, allowing students to start graduate jobs and postgraduate education unimpacted. The University of Cardiff is doing something similar. University of Bath students are applying for and have offers for those very same positions. A company is much more likely to accept a student with a confirmed grade (or higher) than one with a number of 0s and 40s attached to their name. It is bordering on active sabotage, and I feel as though it is intentional. They are doing so to make students angry at the UCU. But whilst the UCU made the decision to boycott, it is universities that are ruining lives on purpose.

That may sound dramatic, but please stay with me whilst I outline the impact this has on myself, and the more dire consequences posed to my friends.

Personally, I have a Masters (MSc) lined up with a conditional offer of 65. With three final-year modules and a dissertation unmarked, this conditional offer will be impossible to achieve, even if all my prior assessments were marked at a first-class level. What then? Do I not receive a place? Or do I begin a Masters with the conditions unmet and run the risk of having to drop out come October if I do not reach my desired grade of 65 once all my assessments are returned? These are unanswered questions. I also have to pay a deposit on a living space in the city of the university that I may not be attending.

I am one of the least impacted of my peers. One has a graduate job lined up with a requirement of a 2:1 grade beginning in July. He is from an underprivileged background receiving bursary funding from the University of Bath. He has, as of this week, received an email from that company’s HR department outlining that his start date will be postponed until he can prove he has received a 2:1 or above. This will not happen, as at least one of his unit convenors has admitted to partaking in the boycott. If the boycott continues until October (or even longer if the ballot is resubmitted) he will miss out on three months of salaried work. He cannot miss out on three months of salaried work or he will be made homeless. He did everything right. Worked hard, attended the library every day, applied for a graduate job early and secured one. Now? He might lose it all. 

When is it too far? When do universities show an ounce of compassion or sympathy? When students and graduates face homelessness? Or international students’ deportation, as is a risk posed to several of my friends? In my opinion, it is nothing short of evil.

The universities and the UCU are on opposite sides of a war, but they have one thing in common: they do not think about those caught in their crossfire.

Thank you for reading. I encourage any anger to be pointed towards the governors, as they can end the boycott in a matter of days but refuse to sit down with the UCU. They have stolen my graduation and, if it continues, will steal many futures without batting an eye. Email your vice chancellors, chancellors and registry if you attend university to demand rebates and engage with the UCU.

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