It’snot uncommon for a student to come to my office to tell me they’re not happy with their exam mark. ‘Perhaps you just made a mistake?’ one suggested to me last year. From the student’s perspective, this is a reasonable concern. We are all fallible. My response is twofold: I look at the feedback on the essay and explain how the merits of the work correspond to the agreed ‘grade-related criteria’. Then I tell the student about our examination system. After assessments are marked, a proportion are sent to a moderator – another academic – who checks the mark and the feedback against the criteria. If I am too harsh, or too generous, or just inconsistent, the moderator requests adjustments. Assessments and marks, I explain, are then further scrutinised by the Board of Examiners. It often puzzles me that university staff are not more open about this backroom machinery. Even if students aren’t interested (and this one was), I tell them. They need to know about exam boards; right now, I think everyone should know about exam boards.

The date of a board is usually set a year in advance and you are expected to attend. (Early in my career I made the mistake of missing a June exam board to take up an offer of a research trip to the Flannan Isles. Puffins, it seems, are no excuse.) I’ve learned to appreciate their formality, their quasi-legal rigour and their occasional drama. Meetings are now often on Teams or Zoom, but the set-up is the same: the academic being scrutinised presents the marks on their course to their peers, discussing any problems or inconsistencies. They are expected to justify the mean mark – is it noticeably higher or lower than comparable courses? (There shouldn’t be hard courses and easy courses.) To guard against grade inflation, course organisers compare this year’s mean to longitudinal data from previous years. All of this is overseen by a regulations expert and an external examiner from another university, who will have looked over the course materials, assessment guidelines and a sample of student work. Only if the board is satisfied with both the integrity of assessments and the quality of the marking will grades be ‘ratified’. And only after that will another meeting of the board decide the degree classifications of anonymised students, once again accompanied by the regulations expert and external examiner.

At this point in the discussion, the student probably wished they hadn’t said anything. But I hope the explanation was reassuring. The marking and the exam board are what make their degree matter: they are the difference between a certificate and a receipt for fees paid.

British universities are in the midst of a crisis that threatens their most basic operation. The University and Colleges Union (UCU), which has been carrying out sporadic strike action since 2018, is now imposing a marking and assessment boycott on academics at 145 institutions. The intention is to force the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) to negotiate after repeated refusals to address the long-term decline in pay. The universities have so far shown solidarity as a group. First, they dished out punitive and disproportionate pay deductions (50 per cent of pay for the boycott period at Edinburgh and UCL, for instance, and 100 per cent at Leeds, even though marking takes up less than a tenth of lecturers’ time). Second, to avoid yielding on pay and to limit disruption, they engineered changes to exam boards to help them bypass the boycott, tipping universities into a state of dysfunction. Some final-year students may not graduate this summer; others will ‘graduate’ without their assessments being marked, or even read – including capstone assessments such as dissertations. If marks don’t matter, what is an examination system for? What does a degree mean?

At the University of Edinburgh, where I teach, changes pushed through the Senate will allow students to get degrees ‘on aggregate’ (based on work marked to date) but with a greater number of missing course credits than would previously have been permitted. The same is true across the sector. It’s not unusual for students to graduate with missing coursework – the affordance is called ‘special circumstances’. But universities have now turned this occasional act of compassion into a handy workaround to benefit employers. ‘Special circumstances’ are being redefined, it seems, to apply to the university’s crisis rather than the student’s.

Edinburgh has also changed the rules that determine who is required to appear at an exam board. Boards that might once have had fifteen people are now deemed quorate with just a chair, two non-striking academics and a regulations expert – even if there isn’t an external examiner. UCU members have been turning up at boards to protest. A common point of contention is the widespread use of the ‘no detriment’ clauses that were introduced in 2020 as an emergency measure to mitigate the impact of Covid, but are now being revived to break the boycott. These clauses mean that students can graduate with a degree classification based on their performance before the boycott; if all their assessments are eventually marked – a scenario that’s hard to imagine at present – their degree classification can be raised as merited by their actual performance. It can’t, however, be lowered. Some students will receive higher grades than they deserve, others will have their achievement diluted by well-founded claims of grade inflation.

The UCU dispute concerns what are known as the ‘Four Fights’: decline in pay; increased workloads; gender and race pay gaps; and casualisation. Many students don’t realise that up to a third of academic staff are on short-term contracts; after studying for ten years, lecturers are likely to end up with temporary jobs, reduced benefits and no career. A parallel UCU dispute is opposing the opportunistic attack on our pension fund, the Universities Superannuation Scheme. A snapshot valuation of the scheme taken as Covid hit in March 2020 showed a £15 billion deficit, which did not reflect the fundamentals of the scheme but was nevertheless used to impose lower benefits and higher contributions (a more recent valuation revealed there is no deficit at all).

The last five years have been dispiriting for academic staff and for our students. Strikes have led to little progress but have brought significant disruption to this cohort, which was also badly affected by Covid, lockdowns and the pivot to online teaching. Lost pay and lost tuition are miserable for everyone, apart from the managers sitting on growing reserves. (This isn’t true of all universities, but those in financial difficulty are used as an excuse not to raise pay elsewhere.) In October 2021, one of Edinburgh’s vice principals, Gavin McLachlan, was caught on video telling senior colleagues that there was a ‘larger than expected surplus’ because ‘we thought we were going to have to contribute a lot more money to the USS pension scheme.’ He concludes that the reduction in pension liabilities ‘is, of course, fantastic news’.

No one goes on strike lightly. We’ve lost months of salary in recent years but often worry that our action affects our students more than our employers. Work from strike days is deferred as often as withheld. Strike days themselves become recovery days, mental health days, days to think about alternative careers or wonder that Edinburgh’s principal, Peter Mathieson, has a pay package of more than £400,000 yet has insisted that UCU pension demands are unaffordable.

The lengths to which management will go to get round the marking boycott border on the absurd. I don’t believe students will be content to have their dissertations graded by agencies, or by staff without relevant expertise. Exam boards are currently refusing to nod through incomplete degrees, which may well herald their demise. Perhaps a legal fix will be found to suspend boards, or redefine them, hoovering up the last remnants of academics’ institutional power so that the awarding of marks becomes, like everything else, tightly controlled by management. British universities are notoriously bureaucratic and micro-managed (a day of fieldwork in the Highlands, for instance, requires me to fill out four long documents and, if I intend to speak to anyone, apply for ethics clearance). But in the case of exam boards, the onerous administration underwrites everything we do. The system works because staff and students believe these processes have meaning. They uphold the value of a degree in the outside world as well as for a student going on to further study.

A much publicised ‘offer’ from the University of Edinburgh to staff on the boycott amounted to little more than a request to return to marking. ‘I appeal to your compassion towards our students,’ Mathieson wrote. A thousand students, led by a politics undergraduate called Ollie Lewis, signed a letter asking him to call on UCEA to settle the dispute. On 31 May, Edinburgh’s vice principal for students, Professor Colm Harmon, addressed them in a video: ‘The university is continuing to try to find ways to bring this to an end by making appeals to staff,’ he said. ‘If you’re concerned about your health and well-being … please reach out.’ Within minutes a dozen or so students had responded below the video: ‘Stop saying you’re sorry for the disruption if you’re not doing anything about it,’ one wrote. ‘The university has the means to pay its staff a fair wage and chooses not to.’ Some were more glib: ‘Thank you good sir, it is utterly unacceptable that these people are striking. Their pay should be withheld COMPLETELY and they should be banned for life from participating in academia.’ The comments feature was soon disabled and the criticism deleted.

What does a win look like for the universities? One theory is that a crisis in higher education may force the UK government to reconsider its fees arrangement in ways that would benefit Russell Group universities. Another is that breaking the union could depress pay and conditions for a generation. ‘I don’t care if it’s bloody,’ one unnamed vice chancellor was quoted as saying in 2021, ‘as long as the blood spills within the union.’ It may be that our efforts haven’t created sufficient pressure. At Edinburgh, there were 75,000 student applicants for 6000 places last year; it’s not unusual to have more than a hundred qualified applicants for a permanent lectureship; and the university has estimated financial reserves of £2.5 billion. They can afford to sit this out for a while.

But a win on these terms is a loss by any other name. What emerges might look like a university but it won’t feel like one. Confidence in the mission of the university – the idea that it is something more than a real-estate business with an educational side hustle – will take decades to repair. What gives me hope is the unanimity of staff. On the picket lines we talk not only about pay and conditions but also about the social purpose of teaching and the value of research, process, rigour. We remember that we are the university.

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