The final countdown: Final assignments and Strikes

A writer discusses their thoughts on the hardest part of the academic year.

Anna Goclawska
17th May 2022
On Wednesday 26th of April, UCU officially decided to escalate the pension, pay and working dispute to another 10 days of industrial action in June. Although the university's official statement is yet to confirm the form of the strike around the 12th of May, it will most likely be a marking boycott.

As for the 6th of May, it is confirmed that 44 universities will take part in a planned dispute after the university's "employers refused to withdraw cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS); universities' pension scheme trustee".

"The boycott will see staff refusing to complete any marking and assessment of students' work, meaning students could be left without grades with some unable to graduate"; we read not such comforting information on the UCU website. 

However, what will the situation entail? For the first and second-year students, even the darkest scenario of the marks being significantly delayed is not scary as the completion of each year takes place within one educational institution; however, a problem arises in the case of the incoming graduates, final year students.

For some programmes, dissertation deadlines are still due. For example, for Media, Communications and Cultural Studies, it is the 13th of May. Given the 20 working days of marking and expected return of the marks on the 14th of June, if we presumably take out ten days of industrial action, it takes us to the 28th of June for the dissertation mark return. But will this be enough time for the department and the administration to write the diplomas and confirm everything before the graduation on the 14th of July? 

Photography by Financial Times

Dr Joanne Sayner, Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Heritage Studies, reassures students in the email that the university will do everything to allow graduations to take place as normal. Additionally, all the disruptions from this year will are thought to be flagged to the exam board and taken into account during the marking process.

Additionally, we should also bear in mind that the decision to participate in a marking boycott depends on individual dissertation supervisors and board of examiners' members; thus, UCU's decision is not binding. 

Although the students are told to carry out, as usual, the situation is heavily stress-inducing, especially in the light of three rounds of strikes in the 2021/2022 and 20 days of an overall teaching absence this semester. 

Whilst some modules run only for three weeks resulting in students' insufficient preparation for the assessments and poor satisfaction, students also complained about the lack of staff support regarding the dissertations and final projects.

"I couldn't get hold of my supervisor for ages! First, there was one strike session, then the other and then a month-long Easter break";

complains one final year Media, Communications and Cultural Studies student.

"At this point, I don't know what I'm paying for. First COVID, then online learning crowned by plenty of disruptions";

adds a Politics student who had just handed in their dissertation. 
Photography by Newcastle University Students Union

As much as the postulates of the union members are more than understandable and (hopefully) supported by all the students, strikes' ability to change the attitudes of the university's administration is highly doubtful because neither prospective nor current students take into consideration the disruptions when considering their university since the same situation happens in almost every university across the country.

As Newcastle University is not the only university where disruptions take place, it is likely, that the administration (once again) will not take individual responsibility resulting in a lose-lose situation for both staff and the students. Not only an agreement on pension schemes, working and pay conditions is likely not to be reached, but also students' dissatisfaction and anxiety with teaching and marking will reach their zenith.

Does this mean that the staff should give up on their cause? Absolutely not! Is it confirmed that the planned disruption will not bear the fruits of an ultimate agreement? Not either! But should students' perspectives and a realistic outlook on the situation be acknowledged in the decision-making process? I strongly believe so…

Note: interviewees’ names were anonymised.

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