Aston University UCU on strike. Photo: Brum SP
Aston University UCU on strike. Photo: Brum SP

Lluis Bertolin, Birmingham UCU member

On 20 April, the University and College Union (UCU) kicked off its first-ever national marking and assessment boycott (MAB), as part of its action short of strike action. Thousands of university workers across the country are now asked to cease grading and providing feedback for ‘summative assessments’, that is, assessments that contribute to a student´s grade.

MABs can be powerful disruptive tactics that employers fear, and can be an effective addition to strike action. If strike action is an open battlefield, a MAB can be a bit like guerrilla warfare. In the management view, universities are businesses providing certifications and titles, and this conception disregards the quality of education provided. MABs set procedural obstacles without reducing the quality of the education. The ‘bottom line’ of the university is disrupted. Effectively, the ‘assembly line’ keeps moving, but nothing comes out of it.

MABs have been tried before quite successfully at a local level, putting immense pressure on senior management. But this is the first time this tactic has been tried at the national level. This will be a test of the resilience and determination of the union and the quality of its leadership.

MABs are notorious for the many threats and tactics that managements use to try to break the action. For example, at Queen Mary University (QMU) they hired a consultancy firm to mark essays, and were lambasted in the national press over the dreadful feedback the external contractors provided. In QMU, management also moved to dock 100% of wages, which was resisted by the UCU branch.

Managements are sure to try everything to break the MAB, so determination and a means to fight effectively is key. It is essential that the union makes it clear it will back up members against any attacks by university bosses. For example, if management tries punitive pay deductions (such as deducting 50-100% of pay when all the rest of the work is being done), that must be met with immediate strike action. 

A MAB was originally planned to take place in the autumn term. This time it was planned on the conditions of the renewal of the ballot mandate and rejection on the part of the members of the so-called ‘offer’ on pay and conditions. The ballot was overwhelmingly renewed, and the dreadful offer from employers was turned down by 56%. The UCU special Higher Education conference passed motions recommending going ahead with the MAB.

The rejection of the offer and the endorsement of the MAB shows that most members are willing to fight, with an understanding among some that the leadership needs to be pushed.

Many members see this as a ‘fight-or-die’ dispute for our sector and are willing to push for a proper inflation-proof offer through thick and thin. As not all members are involved in a MAB – and some, such as those on a casual contract, lose more pay than others – it is important to sustain the action with plans that bring all workers together, for example in rallies and protests, and to prepare to escalate national strike action in the autumn.

Management always tries to drive a wedge between university staff and students. MABs can delay graduation and introduce practical problems for students. However, union members need to discuss with and involve students to encourage the annoyance that students can feel to be directed towards the real cause: senior management and the Tory government. Communication with students, and encouraging them to demonstrate their support, for example with protest actions, will increase the pressure on senior management and help the MAB win.