Press "Enter" to skip to content

Suspending the marking boycott: merely a pleasant interlude

The marking boycott causes a lot of frustration, but who should it be aimed at, the union or the ‘greedy’ bosses?

Another academic year, another round of industrial action from the University and College Union. Do not despair first years; you will soon become accustomed to this. During my two and a half years at Queen Mary, academics and their employers have been engaged in a seemingly endless series of disputes.

This time, the action taken was billed as ‘‘action short of a strike’’. In actual fact, the marking boycott had more effect on students than the previous full dress strikes, which only sporadically disrupted teaching. It also hit participating lecturers, who were being docked 25% of their pay, much harder than the one-day walkouts that were a regular occurrence over the past two years.

It is not for me to get into the minutiae of the current dispute over pensions. Academics clearly have a right to make their views known in regards to this issue. It is likely that they have a stronger case than they did when striking over pay last year, despite receiving the same 1% rise as other public sector workers. My problem is not with what is being demanded, but with the methods used to make the case.

The UCU claim that their members ‘‘overwhelmingly’’ voted for action. Among those that voted, this is true. However, the turnout in their October ballot was 45%. When this is taken into account, less than four in ten members voted for action short of a strike. This should not be a mandate for a boycott that is likely to have caused significant distress to many students.

Feedback is crucial to the academic process. Whether it be first years trying to get to grips with alien assignments or students in their final year embarking on dissertations, improvement is very difficult without knowing the nature of your errors. The timing of the boycott, starting just as first assignments were due to be returned, inevitably resulted in anxiety regarding academic progress thus far. Students are obligated to move on to subsequent assignments on their course and so there is a risk that they will perform more poorly than if they had previously received grades to address potential problems.

Ultimately, this is a dispute in which students are being used as political footballs. Just as during previous strikes, the UCU’s aim appears to be to take advantage of the propensity student unions have for supporting left-wing causes. This is so that they can claim that the massed ranks of students and academics are pitched against ‘greedy’ bosses. The hope then, is that we will direct our frustration at the employers rather than at the union.

As I write, the boycott has been suspended. However, the threat to resume it in January if negotiations are not successful remains. Furthermore, hard-core strikers have suggested that a separate local boycott might be called if docked wages are not restored. The students, innocent bystanders in the whole dispute, would once again be the principal victims if this were to occur. It is time for us to stand up for our own interests rather than kow-towing to the ideologically driven demands of the UCU. In this respect, the Student Union’s vote to support the action but not the method of the marking boycott is a small step in the right direction. Next time – and there is bound to be a next time – they should condemn action hitting students hardest before it takes effect.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.