Cat Wayland reflects on the UCU Marking and Assessment Boycott from the perspective of the University of Edinburgh branch.
After yet another renewed national mandate for industrial action, April 20th saw University and College Union (UCU) members embark on a Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) as part of the union’s Four Fights dispute with employers. Covering pay, inequalities, casualisation, and workload, Four Fights has shone a harsh light on the urgent need for an overhaul of employment practices in the Higher Education (HE) sector. The dispute is not just about securing a pay increase for lecturers; the current claim covers all university workers, across several unions and at all pay grades, not to mention the immiserating casualisation faced by increasing numbers of higher education sector workers. That said, UCU predominantly represents higher pay grades, and other HE unions are not currently on strike, resulting in further obstacles to a unified response to deteriorating conditions.
Following paltry pay offers and gestures at reform from employers after eighteen days of strike action in February and March, members then voted overwhelmingly to pause further action on the ongoing pensions dispute after Universities UK agreed to revoke pension cuts imposed in 2022. Despite significant divisions among members – along factional lines, between permanent and casualised staff and between universities with significant surpluses and those facing budget crunches and redundancies – UCU members now find themselves at a pivotal moment in the Four Fights dispute. As ever, what will make or break the action is whether UCU members can rally in solidarity to push negotiators at the UK level towards firmer commitments on ending zero hours contracts, reforming pay structures, and fixing a system where workloads are at permanent crisis point.
In spite of what may appear to be a gloomy picture from the outside, rank-and-file members are finding renewed pockets of energy to sustain the organising effort. Local branches in universities, and even more localised units such as groups of members in School and Subject Areas in my own University of Edinburgh, are taking the initiative in developing networks and tactics that work to their strengths in terms of membership density and institutional position, both within their local area and the university more broadly. Whilst grassroots work on this scale inevitably brings its own challenges, it is in the nature of the action for these networks and tactics to develop, more so than with a normal walk-out. To cause the necessary disruption required of a MAB, we have to know the conditions on the ground; know who our comrades are in our departments both horizontally and vertically. Only by doing this hyper-local organising can we build the capacity to sabotage the marking and assessment pipeline.
Crucially, MABs have a recent history of success across the HE sector, with branches such as Liverpool and Queen Mary, University of London winning local disputes on redundancies and impositions of strike-breaking measures by management. The knowledge and practical experience these branches have been able to share has been invaluable for enabling others to develop their own MAB strategies, filling in the gaps inevitably left by a national union that represents member institutions with a highly variable range of conditions and resources. At the local branch of the University of Edinburgh, we have been inspired by the creativity and resilience of comrades across other institutions. We have also learned a few useful lessons of our own.
First, one of the most important dimensions of organising strategy that has emerged since we began coordinating the MAB locally is the strategic value of indeterminacy and opacity. Although there is a fine line between indeterminacy and confusion, we have found that the need to work locally has galvanised more members to get involved with organising efforts, developing new channels of communication and solidarity amongst otherwise siloed departments. In an institution with a high level of devolved decision making between Colleges, Schools and Subject Areas, these channels have been essential for sharing tips and strategies, enjoying some camaraderie, and building capacity for future organising efforts. This was made more straightforward thanks to an already well-developed Local Contact network, run by the branch’s designated Organising Officer, though ironically, facilitated by the need to ballot members repeatedly under existing anti-Trade Union laws.
Second, we are seeing more and more potential for our local organising networks for the future thanks to new links forged between workers at different points in their work trajectories. We have more and better communication between permanent and casualised staff, for example. As a result, we have more discussion at Subject Area level of issues that we now know we can work on together in the future. In the likely scenario that individual institutions will be left to decide how to implement whatever agreements are arrived at on workload, pay equality, and casualisation, it is vital to have these networks in place and ready to mobilise.
While the offers from employers have been underwhelming so far, the MAB has, to the surprise of some, been a kind of inoculation against some of the most grinding disappointments of the dispute. In spite of the uncertainty, for many members there is a real sense of optimism borne out of working collectively and developing our organising strategies together. Although some argue that a Marking and Assessment Boycott should have been UCU’s strategy from the start, there is also the knowledge that this is the nuclear option: the strikes were indeed a warning shot, and now we are loading the main cannon. In this respect again, we are at a pivotal moment in the dispute, and workers at Scottish universities are pushing forward with a strategy to win, in solidarity with branches across the UK.
Cat Wayland (@cat_wayland) is an academic at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science.