The Marking & Assessment Boycott (MAB) at Exeter

*** If you are participating in the MAB, an additional page of branch-level guidance is being drafted. In the meantime, please refer to national UCU’s FAQs and/or email if you need guidance or advice***


1. What is the MAB and why is it happening?

On 20 April 2023 the UCU began a nationwide MAB. This means that UCU members will not be doing any work relating to summative marking or assessment at undergraduate or postgraduate level (i.e. marking/assessment activities necessary for the graduation of a student or a student’s progress through their degree). A list of what is covered by this boycott can be accessed here.This MAB is the latest phase in a multi-year national dispute with 150 UK Higher Education employers (represented by their umbrella body, UCEA) about the pay and working conditions of every single person working in the UK Higher Education sector – regardless of whether they are themselves a member of UCU or not.

The MAB will continue until employers agree a resolution with the UCU, and the benchmark for progress in negotiations will be the level of improvement on the proposals rejected by members earlier in April (the limitations of which were exposed in this analysis of the package by UCU’s national negotiators). By contrast, industrial action in a separate national dispute over the USS pension scheme has been stood down after members agreed that sufficient progress had been made towards the restoration of pension benefits (as argued in this briefing by UCU’s national negotiators).

In short, the MAB is going ahead because UCU members have no other option in the face of years of intransigence from UK Higher Education employers over UCU’s requests to deal with mounting real-terms pay cuts and employers’ continuing refusal to negotiate the kind of meaningful sector-wide solutions to casualisation, workplace inequalities and unsustainable workloads that these endemic problems require. Enough is enough.

2. The University’s punitive response to MAB

The University of Exeter has chosen to threaten members participating in the MAB with a pay deduction policy which is punitive, unreasonable, unfair, disproportionate and unworkable. Staff and students alike can draw their own conclusions about the motives of senior management in authorising the publication of a threat to dedicated, hardworking staff of blanket deductions of 50% of pay, potentially for weeks or even months (and with the threat of escalation to 100% deductions at an unspecified date in the future). They have chosen to make no attempt to correlate deductions to the actual amount of work being boycotted, and they have chosen to expand the timeframe considered eligible for deductions as widely as possible. The deduction policy is intended to intimidate staff into pulling out of lawful industrial action. This pattern of behaviour is being repeated nationally and swingeing deductions have been publicly endorsed by UCEA itself as a legitimate tactic to ‘protect’ students.

3. An appeal for financial support

The University of Exeter’s decision to threaten a punitive system of deductions means that MAB participants are risking serious financial exposure in their fight for fair pay and decent working conditions for everybody. If the University follow through on their threats, those involved will need help, but UCU membership at Exeter is very broad and some will need it even more than others: for example, PhD students with teaching contracts, or junior staff still on probation or without a permanent contract. Of course, personal circumstances could make these deductions especially challenging for any member, irrespective of contract type or level of seniority. This will be the inevitable result if the University ignore our warnings and decide to implement a policy which is both punitive and indiscriminate.

These are all reasons why the Exeter UCU branch must organise fundraising on a different scale to previous rounds of industrial action. We have therefore set up a pledge scheme to identify potential financial support we can call on for help if needed (from within EUCU, elsewhere at Exeter, and beyond). Please take a look at this pledge form and consider pledging your support to those who are taking part in the MAB. Alternatively, people can make donations at any time to our branch’s Hardship Fund.

Remember: MAB participants are doing this to try and secure a fair pay deal and better working conditions for everyone working at Exeter and right across the UK Higher Education sector. All help is greatly appreciated.

4. A message to Exeter students

Exeter UCU members, and the UCU nationally, are acutely aware of the implications of launching a marking and assessment boycott. We recognise that it will cause disruption and anxiety to you, our students here at Exeter. Unfortunately, pay for staff working all around you at Exeter (and across the UK) has deteriorated substantially in real terms for well over a decade. Over the same period, employers across Higher Education have repeatedly refused to address endemic, nationwide problems in the working conditions of the staff who teach and support students and keep universities running on a daily basis, specifically: casual and insecure working contracts; gender, ethnicity and disability pay gaps; and unsustainable workloads. Our working conditions are your learning conditions, and the staff you see every day need your support.

Exeter management are telling you that the boycott may affect some of you, but that they have plans in place to mitigate any disruption. Please consider what this mitigation is going to mean in practice:

i) A punitive deduction policy with which to threaten staff (rolling deductions of 50%-100% of pay, irrespective of the amount of marking/assessment work being boycotted). This is intended to deter staff from participating in lawful industrial action in their workplace. What does this really say about University management’s priorities – and the impact these will have on learning conditions here at Exeter, now and in the future?

And when these threats fail:

ii) Rather than put pressure on their national representative body (UCEA) to immediately reopen negotiations with UCU to try and end the boycott, Exeter management is happy to promise students that the same assessment/progression/graduation timetable can be maintained in spite of the boycott. The only way this can be achieved is through measures which will devalue your degree, and damage Exeter’s international reputation. For example, by finding non-specialist or temporary staff to mark your work instead; or by watering down the various quality assurance mechanisms for grading/feedback which are typically used to guarantee academic standards. Not sure that’s worth worrying about? Management tactics at QMUL during a local MAB there last year show how serious the consequences could be: see here and here, with more details in the first section of this QMUL UCU blog post.

So please be understanding if a member of staff you are in contact with is taking part in the boycott. If you would like to help end the boycott and see staff back doing their marking/assessment work, please consider emailing our Vice-Chancellor in support of staff and to build pressure on employers to begin national negotiations with UCU.

We also suggest you raise your concerns with the Students’ Guild or The SU. All student support is greatly valued by EUCU members.

5. A message to University of Exeter colleagues outside UCU

UCU members here at Exeter sincerely regret that, due to management’s hardline response, the MAB may well place more pressure on valued colleagues and friends who also work at Exeter but who are not members of the UCU. We know that some of you will likely be asked by management to help them try and lift the pressure of MAB action, even though your workloads are full already. We also fear that some of you will be put under pressure to provide management with information about the MAB’s impact, and about who is taking part in it. We know that this will be difficult for you.

We would ask UoE colleagues who are not UCU members to consider the full implications of any action requested of you which could have a bearing on the MAB or which could identify a MAB participant to management. We ask this for three reasons:

i) MAB participants are currently being threatened with punitive deductions of 50%-100% of pay

ii) The University’s attempts to mitigate the impact of MAB will likely include sacrificing academic standards to maintain the standard assessment/progression/graduation timetable. This will be to the detriment of all students and staff, and to the University’s international reputation.

iii) MAB participants are fighting for better pay and working conditions for you too, not just for themselves.

We also ask UoE colleagues to please consider pledging financial support to MAB participants via this simple form – support we can then call on if and when the University carries out its threats. Alternatively, people can make donations at any time to our branch’s Hardship Fund.

Thank you to everyone who is able to offer support.

6. Our message to University of Exeter management

The Exeter UCU branch committee wrote to management on Friday 28 April to protest the MAB deduction policy they published on 20 April. We noted that the policy was in direct contradiction to a clear promise within the general policy on partial performance under which this has been formulated: that any deductions will be ‘reasonable and proportionate’. We listed multiple ways in which the policy was instead unreasonable, disproportionate, punitive and unworkable. We have called for the policy to be revoked with immediate effect, and we have warned management that failure to agree a genuinely reasonable and proportionate deduction policy will leave the University open to grievance proceedings. We await management’s reply to this communication.

Legal initiatives are already under way at some other UCU branches and at national level regarding various universities’ deduction policies. Exeter UCU will consider its cooperation with and/or possible contributions to such initiatives if and when any of its members do have pay deducted.