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‘I don’t know how they can treat individuals like this’ | Students express fury at delays to degree results

On the 11th of July, 10 per cent of the 2020-2023 cohort of students were told their degree results had been delayed. Epigram speaks to students and staff to hear their views on the impact of the MAB.

By Aidan Szabo-Hall, Features Editor

A pandemic, hybrid learning, a cost-of-living crisis and strikes: the 2020-23 cohort of students have had a uniquely diminished university experience.

On the 11th of July – the day they were expecting to receive their final results – around 10 per cent of this group were told by the university that their final degree results had been delayed.

This comes as a result of the ongoing marking and assessment boycott, which was undertaken by the UCU as part of their efforts to secure improved pay, working conditions and the restoration of slashed pensions for university staff.

Some students have received ‘classified’ degrees despite the fact some of their marks remain missing. The university’s amended regulations meant that exam boards could classify degrees even where students had up to 40 credits of 3rd year marks missing due to the boycott. Students with 60 or more year three credits missing, or whose missing marks meant they did not yet meet Programme Intended Learning Objectives, have received either an unclassified ‘preliminary’ award (where examiners agreed the threshold to award a degree had been met), a ‘provisional ordinary’ award (where examiners were unable to decide on the final award due to insufficient marks) or a ‘pending decision’, where there were insufficient marks for the examining board to confirm any award. The university is releasing more updates regarding the status of degrees on the 19-20th of July.

In place of a degree classification, affected students received an apology letter and the offer of a £500 ‘goodwill’ payment intended to compensate them for the disruption. Impacted students have the choice of attending either an August graduation ceremony – unknowing of their final degree results – or a delayed graduation ceremony in the Autumn, when their awards become classified. Crucially, this will be without the peer group they have spent the last three years with. The university is expected to hand out £250,000-275,000 to the students without classified awards this month.

In an update published on The University of Bristol’s website, the Vice-Chancellor said: ‘I know that those impacted are feeling frustrated and anxious. I am deeply sorry about the continued uncertainty they face and I share their disappointment that a national dispute is having such a significant impact on their lives […] Maintaining the integrity of our degree awards and supporting every student to achieve the outcome they have worked so hard for are our absolute priorities. The robust contingency measures we introduced to mitigate against the impact of the boycott have helped examination boards make sound decisions that will maintain the quality and high standards associated with a Bristol degree.’

As it stands, those affected have seen their efforts and dedication over the past three years go completely unrecognised. 10,000-word dissertations, the result of months of hard work, have been left unmarked.

The announcement has thrown students into uncertainty and anxiety at what is a pivotal moment in their lives. Impacted students now feel they have nothing to show for the blood, sweat and tears they have poured into not just their dissertations, but entire three-year degrees.

It has also taken a significant mental toll. Speaking to Epigram, Evelyn, a third-year student impacted by the boycott, expresses her disappointment at both this announcement and the treatment of her cohort over the past three years: ‘My cohort and I have experienced disruptions in our education for the last three years. We spent first year online, second year with a hybrid approach as restrictions began to lift, and third year with chunks of our education missing due to the UCU strikes […] I think the worst thing of all, is that despite these disruptions, not once did the university attempt to accommodate us and the circumstances we’ve had to deal with.’

‘But for me, the worst thing of all is the amount of disruptions we’ve had to experience in our third year. I think this has been one of the most emotionally draining, soul-crushing and exhausting years in all of my education. I spent the last few months of third year extremely ridden with anxiety and uncertainty, while my tutors were on strike and the university showed no signs of meeting their demands or providing us with support during these uncertain times [...] Again, the university did not provide us with any extenuating circumstances, given that we were expected to hand in the most important project of our degrees, our personal, research-led dissertations, and we had no contact with our tutors for most of it.’

She touches on how the marking and assessment boycott will disproportionately impact those from lower socio-economic backgrounds: ‘It’s no surprise that these disruptions affect those from underprivileged backgrounds the most. First generation students like myself and many others, those who are the first in their family to attend university, and this is the experience they’re left with? It’s absolutely crushing.

‘I, like many others of my cohort, will not be able to graduate with a classification. So, after these three exhausting years of higher education, my hard work and efforts as a first-generation immigrant and student are not being recognised. My dissertation is not getting the time, consideration, or recognition that it deserves. And this goodwill payment certainly feels like hush money. Compensation is in no way equal to attending a graduation ceremony. Not to mention the guilt, shame, and anger I have felt during these past few months, but now more than ever, as I have had to explain to my family who have saved up to come over to the UK and attend my classification-less "graduation"’.

Rachel is another third-year student impacted by the boycott. Speaking to Epigram, she discusses the impact the announcement has had on her mental health, and the uncertainty she is currently experiencing: ‘I was planning at looking at graduate jobs from now and the lack of clarity on a grade — as well as currently the lack of clarity apparently whether or not I will even pass, despite averaging a solid 2:1 and achieving multiple 1sts — will directly impact what I can apply for as well as even the confidence to apply for things.

‘There’s absolutely no question whether I will pass my degree, I’m a high achieving student — so why are they claiming they can’t even confirm a pass at the moment? My mental health the past few days after being told I might not be even allowed to attend the graduation ceremony whilst my friends have been given classifications has been awful. The prospect of being stopped from attending the one thing you work towards throughout your degree has sent me to a really dark, angry and extremely sad place.

‘Graduation is representative of a community that forms at university but is separate from the education - the majority of my best friends at university have been on my course and we have got each other through some of the toughest times of our lives, especially considering COVID and the strikes that impacted us. I spend months — with these friends who are, at the moment, going to graduation without me — working nearly 12 hours a day on my 10,000 word dissertation which was due on the same day as a 2,500 word portfolio and then, once these were submitted, I had to submit a 3,500 word essay within 5 days. To have worked that hard and tirelessly to be told that due to something entirely out of my control I might not even be allowed to graduate is just abysmal, I’ve genuinely spent the last two days crying and feeling so helpless because I don’t know how they can treat individuals like this.’

Another third-year student, who wished to remain anonymous, said: ‘It has been very disheartening that the university seems so unwilling to engage with the UCU after all the effort put into my dissertation. I totally support the strike action and blame university management for this, it is an incredibly stressful situation [..] The university are offering about £500 for each student affected which is very tokenistic and pointless – it would be better if they used that money to settle the dispute! It’s ridiculous how much we pay to the university and they are not engaging with the UCU.’

Some students who have received their results believe the disruption triggered by the boycott has led to uneven and unfair marking.

One second year Law student – who wished to remain anonymous – contacted Epigram on behalf of ‘50 concerned and upset second year law students’. They explained how ‘Many of us have obtained extremely low grades, which we do not feel at all represent our capabilities or the work which was submitted during the exam period.’

The student elaborated: ‘As someone who has worked extremely hard this year, among others, striving for a first, the low marks I have received are inexplainable, frustrating and deeply upsetting. We hope to hear back promptly from the University with a proper response which explains the anomalies identified.’

They amassed several testimonies from other second-year law students who believe they have received, in comparison to the grades of earlier formative work, irregular and inexplainable marks.

One student, who wished to remain anonymous, said: ‘My formative for EU Law was a 72 and my final result was a 55. This is such a major drop which I am not happy about at all. The level of detail and amount of sources was practically the same. And without full justification of the grade, I feel somewhat cheated. Waiting until October, for a somewhat vague explanation by my personal tutor (who does not teach the unit) is absolutely ridiculous.’

Another said: ‘My Comparative was awful. I got a 52 for my formative and used all of the feedback I received to improve it. I got a 36 in my summative and am exceptionally disappointed and have no understanding as to how there is such a discrepancy. It does not line up with any of my other results.’

This comes amid claims from the Bristol UCU that – in certain departments – ‘entire third year modules were marked by individuals who had never previously taught at Bristol’ and ‘third year assessments were marked by academic staff who did not teach on the unit.’ Last month it was reported that the university was offering postgraduate students £18.85 to mark first and second year exams and making non-striking staff mark dissertations at nearly twice the usual speed.

John McTague is a senior lecturer in English and Co-Vice President of the Bristol UCU. Speaking to Epigram, he discusses how he feels that the work of university staff has been undervalued and undermined by the UCEA (The Universities and Colleges Employer’s Association): ‘Members of the union who have been participating in the MAB have been angered by the institution’s apparent indifference to the value of our labour — specifically, the labour of critically engaging with the work of the students we have been teaching.

‘That indifference is evident in the amended exam regulations, which are primarily an attempt to avoid engagement with the fact of industrial action, and with the causes of that action. As colleagues have commented, if we can award degrees without student’s work being marked, what is it we are working so hard to do to tight deadlines in ordinary years, exactly? The indifference is also evident in the fact the Vice-Chancellor thought it appropriate to volunteer to mark History of Art dissertations despite not having taught in that department before.’

He elaborated: ‘The institution's approach to the MAB sees marking and assessment as a service we provide for students, a service which might be offered by any number of providers […] That is not how teaching staff see marking and assessment, which is a part of our pedagogical relationship with our students: it's teaching. I have been heartened by the fact that some students who have contacted me see it that way too: they don't really want a provisional classification under the amended regulations; they want their work to be marked by the people who taught them and who helped with the development of their ideas.’

While acknowledging how significant progress has been made regarding the restoration of staff pensions, he discussed the reluctance of the UCEA to settle the nine-month long dispute over pay and working conditions: ‘[..] We have had very little engagement from employers and their representatives who say the kind of things one might remember from the playground i.e. "Well UCU rejected our deal so why should we negotiate."

‘Recently, UCU invited UCEA once more to resume negotiations, and it looks like that might be happening in the coming days. Even last week UCEA tried to pretend that UCU was setting preconditions for those talks, which they very clearly were not. That sort of thing is very tiresome. I'd be very happy to pretend that any resolution to this dispute was entirely down to the employers' brilliance, benevolence or whatever they would like, if that meant my colleagues' lives improved a bit.’

John confirmed that he had seen evidence of assessments being marked by academic staff who didn’t teach on the unit, and entire modules being marked by individuals who hadn’t taught at Bristol.

He explained how these decisions have impacted upon students: ‘It separates assessment from teaching and turns it into a sort of certification service. While we mark student work against criteria that are consistent within Faculties or Schools, there are still important ways in which teaching relates to how students approach assessments: which concepts they need to explain in detail, for instance, and which forms of shorthand they can rely on because they know more or less who their reader is and what the knowledge baseline established in the classroom was.

‘There are also significant risks related to maintaining consistency of marking if work is being marked at speed by colleagues who are new to units, departments, and even the institution. There are risks even if very experienced colleagues are marking at speed, which has also happened. Again, those risks were not necessary [...] Instead — and I expect this was under advice from UCEA — they decided to see how bad things would get and whether they could wriggle out of it by way of undermining academic standards via the amended regulations or by seeking to dissuade staff from taking lawful industrial action by threatening and then implementing punitive deductions of 50 per cent of their pay.’

John also emphasised the impact of the marking and assessment boycott on the students who are due to graduate: ‘The Vice-Chancellor, at an all staff meeting on 13 July, sought to downplay the impact of the marking and assessment boycott, saying (for instance) that around 7-8 per cent of students will graduate with an award pending classification or a preliminary ordinary degree and that 90 per cent of students would graduate "normally".

‘However, that figure obscures the huge numbers of students who will be graduating without all of their work having been marked, under the new amended regulations. In many departments the majority of students did not have a full run of marks at the School exam boards (in some departments, no students had a full run of marks). This matters because generating marks by algorithm when students have completed their work is very much not 'business as usual,' nor does it lead to a 'normal' graduation.

‘It matters because of the high likelihood that some students with the same run of marks will receive different outcomes (for instance, a 2.i and a first class degree). The Vice-Chancellor emphasises the instrumental end of assessment — yes, your work hasn't been marked, but we've classified the degree anyway — and not the pedagogical value of feedback, or the recognition of the work that goes into a dissertation or project which that feedback represents. Far more than 7-8 per cent of students are missing that, at the time of writing.’

Marking and Assessment Boycott: 10 per cent of students may have no final degree results
UCU Bristol unveils a ‘Wall of Shame’ on University’s handling of Marking and Assessment Boycott

On the 14th of July the UCEA and the UCU began another round of negotiations. Both staff and students hope for an outcome which brings an end to the nine-month long dispute.

Featured Image: Unsplash / Emmanuel Offei

Have you been affected by the marking and assessment boycott?