Concern for students’ grades as Liverpool and Leicester universities respond to strikes | Universities

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A university could use algorithms to determine grades while another may delay results to sidestep a marking boycott by striking academics, causing students to worry about the value of their final degrees.

The University of Liverpool and University of Leicester have been hit by strikes by staff protesting against redundancies, with lecturers refusing to mark assessments, leading some departments at Leicester to consider using algorithms to fill gaps in marking. Liverpool has proposed delaying final results until the next academic year in October.

The Liverpool Guild of Students has written to the vice-chancellor over concerns that providing students with interim degrees based on earlier marks could make it hard for final-year students to gain places on selective graduate schemes or postgraduate programmes.

The letter states: “When students have already had an incredibly difficult 15 months, completing exams, essays, and dissertations during a global pandemic, the least they deserve is their hard work being acknowledged, fairly assessed and recognised.

“Students may get their highest marks in the last semester of their course, meaning some of their best work may not be counted in their final classification. We are concerned that students with lower interim awards may miss out on valuable graduate opportunities.”

The student letter, accompanied by a petition, urged the university to reconsider 24 redundancies in the health and life sciences department, which would end the strike that began on 24 May and is thought to be the longest-running local strike in recent years, and enable students’ work to be “fairly assessed”.

Students also expressed concerns about plans to bypass external examiners and have people who are not subject specialists grade papers, including postgraduate students.

Chloe Field, a vice-president of the Guild of Students, said: “People are very angry. There’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of worry. Because of the vague communications from the university, they’re not sure what’s going to happen with their degrees.”

Liverpool has threatened to dock pay for all staff participating in the marking boycott, which the University and College Union condemned as “disgraceful and tantamount to a lock-out by university managers”.

The UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, said: “We have never seen a university behave so egregiously. It is not the sort of behaviour you expect to see from any employer, let alone an institution that claims to be a proud asset of a great city like Liverpool.”

At Leicester, where staff have been boycotting marking and assessment since late May, an email shared with lecturers who grade work for final-year students in several departments urged them to provide marks for students by 16 June, warning that any outstanding papers would be graded algorithmically.

A campaign run by the local branch of the University and College Union is urging students to write to their vice-chancellor and the universities watchdog, the Office for Students, to complain that the university plans to “jeopardise the value of your degree”.

Deborah Toner, an associate professor of history and a UCU rep, said responses to the marking boycott varied across departments in the university, with only some unveiling plans to use algorithms. “It’s quite shocking,” she said. “That raises serious questions about parity of outcomes for students.”

Prof Graham Wynn, pro vice-chancellor for education at the University of Leicester, said: “It is our priority to ensure our finalists can graduate and take the next steps in their journey, and that current students receive their outcomes for this academic year. At this point we do not expect any significant delay to the conferral of degrees or the quality and standards of our awards to be impacted.

“The university has set out that it may withhold some pay from members of staff taking part in action short of a strike because not marking student’s assessments constitutes partial performance of a contract.”

A Liverpool University spokesperson said: “Whilst action short of a strike may be lawful, it remains the case that such actions might amount to partial performance of the contract of employment, and therefore a breach of contract.

“An assessment and marking boycott, where this is undertaken, has the potential to cause significant undue stress and disruption to our students. Consequently, we have concluded that it is, on this occasion, proportionate and necessary to adopt a position of withholding 100% of pay from colleagues who take part in the assessment and marking boycott where this results in some or all marks as referred to above not being submitted by 5 July 2021.”

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