Marking & Assessment Boycott 2023

Key information about the 2023 Marking & Assessment boycott. Click for more information on:

See here for further local FAQs, and national UCU FAQs, and contact your departmental rep / the branch committee for more information. Join our branch daily support meetings 10am on Zoom.

What a marking & assessment boycott is.

A marking and assessment boycott is a form of ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS) where staff refuse to participate in any activities related to grading and summative assessment of students’ work. This includes: marking coursework, practical work, presentations and exam papers; moderating to ensure fairness and parity across all those marking an assignment; checking marks transferred onto students’ records are correct; and sending marks and moderation to external examiners to check they are fair and unbiased, adhere to university regulations, and align with other universities. It also covers invigilating exams and attending assessment boards.

Marking and assessment is a key element of our current unsafe and unsustainable workloads. For instance, at Kingston, staff are allocated 20 minutes to read, assess and write feedback on a 2000-word essay (on modules often including 100+ students), or 1 to 1.5 hours to mark, give feedback on and moderate a 12-15,000 word MA dissertation. A 20 day turnaround is enforced for returning grades and feedback, regardless of whether we work on part-time contracts or are on annual leave, and we’re regularly given less time. With job cuts and restructuring of professional services, fewer administrative staff are dealing with greater workload, and more and more of the duties involved in processing student marks have been pushed onto academic staff without any additional time allocated.

A marking & assessment boycott is not full strike action – all of our other work teaching and supporting students, and engaging in research, professional practice, training, planning and development, would carry on as usual.

When the marking & assessment boycott is taking place.

The national UCU marking & assessment boycott starts Thursday 20 April 2023 until the Universities & Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) puts a fair offer on the table committing to meaningful national action addressing the issues in the UCU Rising pay and conditions dispute.

It is in the hands of UCEA to take steps to end this boycott and settle this dispute. The more pressure we can apply at the outset, the more likely the boycott will be effective and compel university leaders to negotiate meaningfully over these issues. Our goal is to apply pressure on Kingston senior leadership so that they lobby UCEA to meet our demands as swiftly as possible. The more pressure we apply at the outset, the more likely that it will be effective, and the dispute can be resolved more quickly.

This boycott is accompanied by other action short of a strike (ASOS) including working strictly to contract, and may be accompanied by further strike action.

After the boycott ends, staff will take as much time safely within their contracted hours to complete outstanding marking and assessment.

How you can participate in the marking & assessment boycott

For staff at Kingston who are UCU members, a marking & assessment boycott involves:

  • Not marking any assignments or exam papers received in the boycott period.
  • Not uploading marks to Canvas.
  • Not submitting any .csv files downloaded from Canvas
  • Not uploading marks to any other centralised university system
  • Not undertaking second marking
  • Not participating in moderation
  • Not participating in scrutiny or ratification of marks on OSIS
  • Not uploading / sending marks or moderation records to external examiners
  • Not participating in exam invigilation.
  • Not participating in PhD final vivas and MPhil to PhD upgrades.

You should expect and offer to carry on with your other duties as normal.

See also UCU advice for heads of department and line managers participating in the boycott.

If you are not scheduled or asked to carry out any duties relating to marking and assessment, you should work as normal. However, if you are subsequently asked to carry out such duties, you should refuse to do so. No colleague should under any circumstances mark work or undertake assessment administration that was previously assigned to another colleague who is participating in the boycott. This undermines the marking boycott, the sacrifices of your colleagues, and academic standards. From Thursday 20th April all other aspects of our ASOS, including working strictly to contracts and contracted hours, not covering absent colleagues, and not undertaking voluntary activities, also come back into force.

If any UCU members in professional services are involved in inputting data or compiling marks ahead of exam board meetings, our ASOS allows them not to participate in these activities. Further guidance for Academic-related and Professional Services staff

UCU members were balloted in relation to their principal employer so external examination may not be covered by the boycott but UCU guidance states external examiners should take the steps outlined here.

Why we are doing a marking & assessment boycott

Nationally, 89.92% of university staff who voted in the March re-ballot supported taking action that would include a marking & assessment boycott. It is therefore part of lawful industrial action and the renewed mandate for strike action and action short of strike we have from April until October 2023.

This boycott is an escalation of the current action short of strike we have been undertaking since November 2022, which so far has involved working to contract and not rescheduling classes lost to strike action.

A marking & assessment boycott is one of the most serious actions staff can take, and not something we undertake lightly. 

But we have been pushed into taking this further step by university leaders who have refused to table a fair offer on pay or make meaningful committments to tackle the shame of pay inequality, unsafe workloads, and insecure temporary contracts. UK Vice-Chancellors, who pay themselves hundreds of thousands of pounds a year and sit on a total sector income of £41.9bn with £46.8bn reserves, have failed to take meaningful action to settle this dispute, offering only a real-terms pay cut of 15% over the next two years and some vague words on conditions. This follows 14 days of strike action which have caused disruption to students.

Marking & assessment boycotts have proven to be one way to force university leaders to listen to and negotiate with staff. In 2021 at University of Liverpool the UCU branch used a marking boycott as part of their action to stop all 47 compulsory redundancies being pushed through in the Health and Life Sciences faculty. At Goldsmiths in 2022, after 40 days of strike action it was a marking boycott that won an agreement on no compulsory redundancies. In 2022 Kingston UCU participated in the marking boycott undertaken by several branches, which saw Kingston senior leaders commit to local joint action for the first time in several years.

How we can support students during the boycott

Read and share our letter to Kingston students regarding the boycott.

A marking & assessment boycott inevitably impacts students, will delay the publication of final marks for the year, and may delay graduation. Staff work with dedication every year to ensure students’ hard work is fairly and properly assessed. Kingston students know how much we care about them, their progress and futures. We wouldn’t have taken 14 days of strike action over issues that damage our ability to teach them and create a toxic learning and working environment for us all if we didn’t care about students. It’s university leaders who don’t.

Vice-Chancellors were notified in autumn 2022 about the possibility of UCU action escalating to a boycott if no meaningful progress was made in negotiations, yet have done little to avoid it. They have shown they don’t care if students lose teaching to strike action. They only see students as cash cows to suck in and products to churn out. Refusing to submit and process marks is one of the few ways we have to disrupt that assembly line and make them listen. Kingston UCU want this action to hit senior management, not students.

We are committed to providing ongoing support to students. Kingston UCU members will be responsive to students’ individual circumstances and will take all action possible within the bounds of the boycott to ensure that no students face detriment. As part of this we commit to:

  • Provide informal feedback to students that occurs as part of ongoing teaching during the boycott.
  • Support applications for further study and/or funding, commenting on expected grades/performance where possible and appropriate.
  • Support job applications writing references and indicating past and projected performance.
  • Make sure that international students are supported;
  • Make sure PhD students are supported.

A delay not a cancellation: The return of grades will be delayed for a period of time, but will take place following the delay. We understand that final year undergraduate students will be concerned about the implications this action may have on the completion of their studies. This will only impact on final year undergraduate graduations if UK university leaders refuse to come to the negotiating table and work with us to create fairer, healthier, more equal and more sustainable pay and working conditions for staff.

We want to work with students in applying pressure to management to ensure that we can resolve our dispute as swiftly as possible. Kingston students have shown us amazing support throughout this dispute. We support students demanding partial fee refunds as a result of teaching lost to industrial action, as well as mitigation on assignments and no penalties for late submission and deferral. We are committed to working closely with Union of Kingston Students.

How you can support the marking & assessment boycott if you are not a UCU member / or if marking & assessment is not part of your job.

Staff can: join UCU and participate in this action. PhD students who teach can join for free. Otherwise you can support they boycott by:

  • Not taking on marking and assessment duties of other members of staff or on modules you do not teach.
  • Not taking on moderation or second marking duties of other members of staff.
  • Not undertaking scrutiny or ratification of marks or sending materials to external examiners for other members of staff.
  • Not agreeing to be an external examiner to replace someone who has stood down due to the boycott.
  • Not declaring whether you are participating in the boycott in advance of it starting.
  • Supporting any Phd students and HPL colleagues coming under pressure to cover marking & assessment on modules they don’t usually teach.
  • Donating to the national UCU Fighting Fund.
  • Helping spread the word: follow & share @kingstonucu on twitter + instagram

If you are a line manager, you can refuse to put pressure on module leaders to submit, process or ratify marks. If you are a module leader, you can refuse to allocate marking, organise moderation/parity meetings and processes, or assign roles to HPLs.

Students can:

  • Write to the Kingston Vice-Chancellor Steven Spier telling him you support us, and demanding he use his voice in UCEA to end the boycott by addressing our concerns. See template letter here.
  • Help spread the word: follow & share @kingstonucu on twitter + instagram
  • Work with Kingston UCU and Union of Kingston Students to demand pay deducted from staff for taking industrial action goes to the student hardship fund.
  • Raise a Notification with the Office for Students (OfS) that Kingston University senior management team has allowed disruption to their education.

How Kingston University senior leaders might respond to the marking & assessment boycott

In the past, university senior leaders have responded to marking boycotts by undermining academic standards and taking punitive actions like:

  • Threatening to deduct 20% – 100% of the pay of staff participating in the boycott until grades are formally processed.
  • Trying to get staff who don’t teach on modules or courses to mark work, including pressurising PhD students and hourly-paid lecturers to do this for low pay.
  • Suspending second marking and moderation, and carrying marks through without them having been checked internally for fairness.
  • Suspending external examination of marking as part of quality assurance or using non-specialist examiners to ratify assessment in courses they aren’t familiar with.
  • Awarding temporary grades based on average marks.

If pay can be deducted for participating in a marking & assessment boycott

As a form of action short of a strike (ASOS), participation in a marking & assessment boycott has been interpreted by some university senior management as partial performance of contract, with threats of up to 100% pay deductions, despite staff carrying out the majority of their duties. Where this happens, UCU reserves the right to call additional local strike action unless this threat is withdrawn. The legality of pay deductions for partial performance is in question.

Kingston staff were informed 25 April 2023 that the University reserves the right to make 100% deductions, but would make a voluntary payment of 50% of salary for those days or periods during which any member of staff takes part in the boycott. Any work done while participating in the boycott would be therefore viewed as ‘voluntary’. When they threatened similar last year, in negotiating a local agreement in principle to end the boycott Kingston UCU won a commitment that no pay deductions would be made.

What happens if Kingston decides to deduct 100% pay

Threats of 100% pay deductions for participation in a marking & assessment boycott, while the country is in the middle of a cost of living crisis, are a punitive and escalatory step aimed at bullying, intimidating and blackmailing staff into silence by pushing them into debt. Such a move can only damage the reputation of any university that undertakes it – showing their callous disregard for the people that work for them.

By taking this step, Kingston would essentially be forcing a lock-out.  Witholding 100% of pay means we should stop work completely. Our action short of a strike covers not undertaking any voluntary work.

Claiming strike pay for participating in the marking & assessment boycot

The UCU national Fighting Fund is available to all members subjected to 50% – 100% action short of a strike (ASOS) deductions.

Dispute guidance states: “Payments also apply to action short of strike where the employer has deducted a full day’s pay for partial performance. In these circumstances eligibility and payments are as set out above [£50/£75 per day depending on earnings, subject to a cap of 11 days].” See here for more details: HE Disputes Guidance May  2023. Alongside other branches we are advocating for the cap to be raised.

See here for answers to further marking & assessment boycott FAQs.