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Universities marking boycott’s impact on students – Education Committee launches new inquiry

24 November 2023

The Education Committee has launched a new inquiry to investigate the impact that this year’s industrial action by university staff had on students.

University and College Union (UCU) members at 150 UK universities went on strike between February and March 2023 over pay, working conditions and pensions. This was followed by a boycott of marking and assessing students’ work between April and September, which led to delays in students receiving their degrees, being able to graduate and move on to employment or post-graduate study. 

UCU members took the coordinated action to boycott marking and assessments due to disputes over their pay and conditions including gender and minority ethnic pay gaps, staff workload and the casualisation across the sector.  

The cross-party Committee’s inquiry will focus on how students have been impacted by various forms of industrial action in recent years, with particular focus on the marking and assessment boycott. 

MPs will examine the efforts that universities made to minimise disruption and look at whether a standardised method of mitigation could be used across the sector if needed in future. Some universities such as Newcastle University and Lancaster University took a so-called ‘no detriment’ approach where students were issued with temporary marks, allowing them to progress to the next academic year. At other institutions such as Bristol University some students received confirmed marks, while others received preliminary, provisional or no awards until the end of the boycott. 

Meanwhile, the Government suspended the requirement for students on initial teacher training courses to have their degree confirmed prior to starting. It also said it exercised “operational discretion” to provide flexibilities for international students where their permission to remain in the UK was about to expire and they were hoping to apply for a graduate visa. 

The inquiry will also look at the role of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), which represents the universities, and how they acted through periods of industrial action. 

Whilst the marking boycott came to an end in September, staff at some universities held further days of strikes in October. However, an attempt to renew the mandate for industrial action in this dispute into 2024 was unsuccessful due to turnout being below 50%.  

Chair's Comment

Education Committee Chair Robin Walker MP said:  

“As with any form of industrial action, the UCU’s intention was to ensure the withdrawal of their labour was felt. And through the unprecedented length of the marking and assessment boycott it was clear that large numbers of students were being caught in the middle, with some having to delay taking further qualifications or accepting jobs. 

“The purpose of this inquiry will not be to litigate the reasons for the industrial action, but to examine ways in which the damage could be limited through effective planning and mitigation by university leaders, working with the Government and the unions. There were good examples of universities managing to limit students’ exposure to this disruption, but others too where students appeared to have been left high and dry, their lives put on hold. Lessons need to be learnt. Our Committee will now investigate how any similar scenario in future could be better managed and disruption to students minimised.” 

Call for evidence  

To inform its inquiry, the Committee is now accepting written evidence submissions that respond to the following terms of reference. MPs want to hear from a range of sources but particularly teachers, pupils, and school administrators. Information on how to submit evidence online by Friday 5 January is available here.  

  • How have students been impacted by industrial action at their universities? 
  • What mitigations do universities have in place against industrial action negatively impacting students? 
  • Why did the impact of the recent Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) vary so much between different universities? 
  • What action are trade unions taking to mitigate the impact of their industrial action on students? 
  • What action did the Government take to mitigate the impact of the MAB on students?

Further information

Image: Parliament