Assessment Boycott: A Briefing Note for Staff

From Friday June 3, 2016 UCU members at Newcastle University will be asked to take part in a comprehensive boycott of student assessment and examinations activity. This briefing note includes information about why we are doing this, and responses to questions about exactly what the boycott includes. We will update this page with responses to additional questions as they come in.

Who should take action?

All members (excluding clinical academics and heads of institutions), employed by Newcastle University, who have assessment-related duties, including duties relating to the administration of assessment.

Why is the branch taking this action?

To persuade the management of Newcastle University to withdraw the Research Expectations documents issued in Autumn 2015 and subsequently amended, and to provide an assurance that they (or something similar) will not be used as metrics in recruitment, PDR, contractual discussions, or promotion decisions. As an alternative, Newcastle UCU invites the University management and all interested parties to work together to develop a plan for improving research.

When will the action finish?

There is no finish date at present. The union is determined to continue the action until its objectives are met. PLEASE REMEMBER that full support for the action from all members is the best way to persuade Newcastle University management to withdraw the RPE documents as quickly as possible.

What exactly does the boycott include?

The boycott includes all formal student assessment, including the setting of assessed work. By ‘formal’ we mean any assessment, whether expressed numerically or in any other form, which contributes to the award or classification of any degree, certificate, diploma or any other academic or professional qualification. It applies to all levels, sub-degree, undergraduate or postgraduate (including research degrees), and to all forms of higher education and professional training, full-time, part-time or distance learning. The boycott covers final-year assessment and any assessment that contributes to decisions about students continuing with their studies (e.g. end of Stage One) or to take particular modules (e.g. relating to prerequisites).

Members should not:

  • set examinations or other assessable student work falling within the above description mark or examine any such work, including projects, dissertations or theses
  • provide informal guidance to students with regard to their mark, grade or assessed progress
  • process marks or assessments in any way – including those which originate before the beginning of the assessment boycott
  • attend or participate in any way in any meetings (or part thereof) in which student work is assessed or examined
  • Examine dissertations or theses at postgraduate level, or conduct postgraduate vivas.

What about the administration associated with student assessment?

All administration associated with formal student assessment is included in the boycott. For example, members should not set examination papers or attend any meetings or parts of meetings at which student work is assessed or examined (including examination boards), or act as invigilators.

Am I required to tell my line manager that I am participating in the action?

You should not inform your employer that you intend to participate in the action until the action has begun AND you are asked by a person in authority. If you are directly asked if you are participating in the action, respond as follows:

I intend to support the UCU assessment boycott from [date] when I have scheduled work to do which is included in the boycott. I will not be engaged in marking every day after that date. Please note that I would have expected all my work as covered by the boycott to have been completed by [date].

Be aware that while we do not know exactly how Newcastle University will respond to the action, the employer retains a legal right to deduct pay from day one of action, irrespective of whether you are taking action on each day. If you support the action but do not have marking duties, you should not state that you are participating in the action.

Won’t this action hurt the students, who are not at fault?

UCU agree that the problem is not the students’ fault, and has tried hard and in good faith to persuade the university management to withdraw the RPE without resort to industrial action. The assessment boycott is a last resort. University management could avert any harm to students by withdrawing the documents.

Hasn’t the management softened its tone considerably since the autumn? Is there really still a problem?

Strong and sustained opposition to the research performance documents from across the university has led the university management to soften its tone since the initial introduction of the documents. The VC has stated that communication was clumsy. However, changes in communication have not been accompanied by substantial changes to the policy itself. In particular, the management has refused to provide any assurance that colleagues will not be judged according to the RPE documents in relation to PDR, contractual discussions, or promotion decisions. Nor has it accepted any possibility of appeal of judgements of publication quality or any other metrics.

How will the university management respond to the assessment boycott? Will my pay be docked?

The last time an assessment boycott was proposed, Newcastle University management threatened staff participating with 100% withdrawal of pay from the point they began the action. (In the end the boycott was not implemented and so no pay was deducted.) It is possible they will take this hard line again.

How will UCU respond if members have pay deducted?

1) We will call an Emergency General Meeting which will discuss how to defend members threatened with deductions (e.g. escalating to strike action). 2) Members who have pay deducted will be able to apply to access national UCU’s ‘Fighting Fund’. 3) Members can draw on a local fighting fund. Currently being established, this fund will attract significant donations from other branches and individuals, who recognize the importance of what is happening at Newcastle.

Should I withhold marks and assessments that were produced before the action started?

You cannot withhold marks if requested to release them by your employer, and, in certain circumstances, by students. The action is about not marking, rather than withholding marks. It is crucial members NOT carry out any formal student assessment, thus ensuring that they have no records of assessment or outcomes in their possession.

Is external examining included in the action?

External examining is not included in this action but national UCU has asked all members to resign from positions as external examiners as part of the separate dispute over pay.  Members at Newcastle can raise with their external examiners any concern about the integrity of the degree-granting process that arises as a result of this action.

Can we still give students feedback on their progress?

We are boycotting all forms of student assessment which contribute to the final award, or relate to formal decisions about student progress. Members should not carry out any assessment that falls within those areas or use such assessments in student feedback. Any other form of feedback to students is part of teaching, and can occur.

What if I am not a permanent member of academic staff?

We ask that you participate in the boycott. This struggle is about the nature of the institution as a whole.

How can non-academic staff and staff who do not have any current marking duties support the action?

These members can volunteer to help organise the action, donate money to the local hardship fund (contact the UCU office for details of how to do this), and express your support through displaying posters and on social media.

My job involves managing assessment (e.g. as Head of Subject, Head of School, or Chair of BoE). What should I do?

You should not do any assessment work yourself, and should not reassign work that colleagues you manage have refused to do to other colleagues. Let colleagues know that you support their action and are participating yourself.

I am not a member of UCU. Can I participate in the assessment boycott?

If you participate in the assessment boycott but are not a member of UCU, you do not have legal protection. You can join UCU here, and then take action as a member:

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