Marking boycott leaves international students in limbo

Among the thousands of students at British universities affected by a marking and assessment boycott (MAB) are many international students, unsure about whether they will be accepted for job offers or postgraduate study places, or even allowed to stay in the country, until they get their final results.

The dispute between academics and university bosses over pay began in April and looks set to drag on into the autumn terms unless there is a sudden change of heart by the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA), or unless members of the University and College Union (UCU) give up the fight.

It has already disrupted scores of planned graduation ceremonies this summer, with some students protesting on the graduation stage after being handed letters of apology rather than their degree classification because their final degree work has been left unmarked.

The University of Edinburgh in Scotland has been one of the hardest hit with a statement on its website last week saying that 27% of final-year students, around 1,600, have not yet received a final decision on the degree outcome.

A threatened escalation of the dispute has, however, receded at Edinburgh at least, with local UCU branch members calling off strike action planned for the start of the new academic year in September after management agreed to "pause deductions", which had seen those staff members involved in the marking boycott lose half their salary.

In a joint statement issued to staff on Friday 4 August, the university and UCU Edinburgh appeared to pull back from the brink, with both sides agreeing a "period of relative calm". The branch recommended members "prioritise outstanding marking so that this marking will be complete to allow the October exam boards to run smoothly. To achieve this goal, line managers will ensure that the appropriate prioritisation of marking is managed within the overall workload."

In return, the university has agreed to pause deductions for those currently taking part in the MAB and both sides publicly stated that it is “in the interests of higher education institutions, staff, and students that the dispute is resolved".

Damage to appeal of HE sector

Sector expert Dr Diana Beech, chief executive officer of London Higher, the voice of universities in the capital, told University World News that unless the situation is resolved quickly “it will tarnish the appeal of a UK higher education for future students, especially those from overseas”.

She said: “While the UK higher education sector is not alone in facing industrial action this summer, the latest marking and assessment boycott helps no one – least of all the ‘Class of 23’ who have not had it easy, starting university at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and having to study through lockdowns, social distancing measures and teaching strikes.

“With the world opening up after COVID, the UK higher education sector cannot afford to become complacent and negative headlines relating to the MAB could easily encourage prospective students to look elsewhere.”

That is already happening, according to Susan Fang, chief executive and founder of OxBridge Holdings, an East Asia-based international student recruitment agency which assists many Chinese students coming to the UK to study.

She told University World News most of the Chinese students affected are at top Russell Group universities and many have offers to join another UK university for a masters or second masters with conditions to meet.

They say they have ‘no future’

“They are having lots of heated discussion and making desperate pleas on ‘The Little Red Book’, a Chinese app popular with international students,” she said, adding: “Some students claim that a certain university in northern England is not accepting offer holders with a ‘provisional pass’ letter from another university, even though this particular university has been badly affected badly by the MAB itself.”

Fang said many Chinese students she has spoken to feel stuck because since 1 January 2023, the Chinese Ministry of Education no longer certifies qualifications of returnee Chinese international students if they cannot produce a graduate certificate.

“The certification on overseas qualification is a prerequisite if a returnee Chinese wants to apply for residence in major cities in China and apply for jobs.

“So, our students say without being properly graduated with a certificate from their respective UK universities, they have no future,” said Fang.

Chinese international students “very rarely make a big fuss openly and directly”, said Fang, but there are plenty of other equally competitive destinations and some Chinese international students are “voting with their feet” because they can’t get a clear answer about whether they will be accepted without their first-degree classification by another UK institution for postgraduate study.

“In the end my counsellors sent the students to another country for masters as they held offers elsewhere,” she said.

Graduate route visas

Those international students who want to stay in the UK and pursue the graduate route, which gives overseas students two years to find work in Britain, also face uncertainty despite the Home Office allowing foreign students to extend their student visas for up to eight weeks.

The UK Council for International Student Affairs has stepped in to fill an information void for students by publishing information about the “discretionary arrangement” given to institutions to cover the situation where the marking boycott impacts students who hope to apply for a graduate route visa, but lack confirmation that they have successfully completed their degree course.

However, the eight-week visa extension, which comes at the price of GBP490 (US$621), may not be long enough if final work remains unmarked by the autumn.

The UCU has already written to Home Secretary Suella Braverman raising concerns that students at some universities are facing visa problems.

No end in sight

Meanwhile talks between the UCEA and UCU appear to be getting nowhere with the union warning that there is no end to graduation disruption and demanding that employers “restore punitive pay deductions for staff who have boycotted marking” and end the dispute with the improved pay offer.

In response Raj Jethwa, chief executive of UCEA, sent a letter to the union on 31 July dismissing the union call by saying: “Many staff did not participate in the boycott and have worked tirelessly to mitigate its impact. It would, therefore, be unfair to return deducted pay to staff who had already participated in the boycott.”

UCEA said its final offer would mean a “pay uplift of 5 to 8%”. UCU is demanding the retail price index (RPI) rate of inflation plus 2%, which employers say would mean a pay increase of 12.7% which is “far beyond the sector’s affordability”.

In the meantime, UCEA is imposing a pay uplift of between 5 to 8% in two stages, the second part of which was due to be implemented from 1 August 2023.

However, some UK universities say they cannot afford to pay it this year, including the University of Kent where a spokesman told University World News they expect to have to “defer” pay increases for next year until 2024/25.

“This is due to cautious assumptions we are making in our budget planning in response to rising inflation and the impact on the sector of the fixed tuition fee level [for home students which has remained at GBP9,250 (US$11,700) for a decade],” said the spokesman.

Controversial deductions

Meanwhile, in a move which appears to be fanning the flames for union activists, some UK universities have deducted 100% of salaries for staff members taking part in the boycott despite these academics carrying out other duties such as PhD supervision, writing research papers and curriculum development.

In contrast, other universities accept the MAB doesn’t warrant 100% pay deductions recommended by UCEA, including the University of Kent which has withheld 50% of earnings for those involved in the boycott and says it has completed all its marking and assessment by turning to non-union staff and those on casual contracts to do the job.

This has led to accusations from some academics on social media that universities are making money from the dispute, with one lecturer from a university in the south-east of England tweeting: “My wages are being docked for six days of marking boycott. A colleague in a precarious position took on my marking, was treated awfully, and only paid for 15 hours work.”

A spokesman for the university believed to be involved told University World News: “We are not seeking to profit from the deductions, with any surplus monies [being] used to support student hardship funds or other student priorities as identified in conjunction with the Students’ Union.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.

This story has been updated to reflect developments at the University of Edinburgh.