An email sent to all students of Durham University in May stressed that despite the impending impact of the marking boycott, final-year undergraduates will still be granted the ‘full pomp and ceremony’ of their graduations. A slight exaggeration in phrasing hoped to diminish any disappointment toward the reality that the majority would be graduating without technically having graduated.

Life Goes On

You would never have guessed that the majority of my cohort were only graduating with a fraction of their final results. Each of us was adorned in our undergraduate gowns. One at a time, we went onstage to shake hands with the Vice-Chancellor in commemoration of our graduation. A stall in the Graduation Marquee even encouraged attendees to sign up for the alumni network. What’s more, thanks to the implementation of interim transcripts, all of us were still able to progress to the next steps whether it be graduate schemes or postgraduate study. Other than a technicality, life has — more or less — moved on.

Back at universities, however, the struggle is very much ongoing. In response to the continuation of the marking boycott, the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) sent a letter agreeing to hold negotiations, and ‘explore’ a solution. The emphasis was, of course, placed on ‘explore’ — a seemingly tactical use of language where words like ‘to plan,’ or ‘to reach,’ might have been more suitable. Unsurprisingly, these exploratory talks did no more than reinforce the complex nature of the dispute, and conclude, once again, that more talks will be needed.

The Chief Executive of the UCEA, Raj Jethwa, made a statement earlier this year emphasising that whilst space for negotiation was needed, ‘the impact of strike action continues to be low and isolated.’  Jethwa has gone on to stress that the marking boycott has affected less than 3 per cent of students nationally. Whilst the exact numbers remain underreported, based on the extent of media coverage and my own personal experience, I suspect the percentage is far greater than that.

It is very telling that the UCEA labelled what was set to be ‘the biggest series of strikes ever to hit UK university campuses’ earlier this year, as having a low and isolated impact. 2023 marked the fifth consecutive year of students being impacted by striking lecturers and missed tuition days. This year, the announcement of the marking boycott created a very real threat for final years eager to graduate. Its after-effects have reduced the credibility of higher education and made the inevitable student debt a questionable use of money.

Get Serious Or Get Out!

Despite the strikes’ duration and their undesirable academic effects, a more fruitful outcome beyond tentative decision-making never materialised.

‘Jethwa remains resolute that the UCU’s requests are unattainable …’

The general secretary of the University and College Union, Jo Grady, labelled the latest pay offer of 5 per cent as laughable. She responded: ‘My message is very simple: our members have seen through your pleas of poverty as you sit on over £40bn of reserves. […] Get serious and make a proper offer — or get out of the way.’ Jethwa remains resolute that the UCU’s requests are unattainable, and the UCEA cannot magically afford more.

The Little Guy And The Bubble

However, maybe the real problem here is that strike action is simply not being taken seriously enough. A culture of student apathy, populated by a transient collection of youth, has resulted in an institution that capitalises on the prevalence of the ‘university bubble.’ A relaxed duty towards optional lecture time makes missing tuition hours appear less of an issue. Enabling students to graduate, without their degrees, reinforces a culture that easily allows them to put their university days behind them. This then creates an isolated ‘bubble’ that leaves those left behind (the lecturers and professors), stuck fighting for an institution that its attendees simply forget about and move on once they’re done studying.

If strike action does not rouse enough agitation amongst those affected and allows employers to turn a blind eye, then strike action, however valid, becomes pointless. The bullying rhetoric that has defined these talks can only have originated from a power play; one where the UCU is the little guy struggling for validation. They are fighting a case that has been repeatedly undermined and ignored by those in control. The UCU’s Twitter page brings up desperate phrases such as, ‘[w]e will not be bullied,’ and ‘if universities cared […].’ Even mummy and daddy (in the guise of the government), have recently stepped in asking for the fighting to stop and a resolution to be found.

‘… why is it taking so long for the UCEA to view it as a necessity to appease the valid concerns of strikers?’

One gets the feeling that, perhaps, there is an underlying belief that these strikes can continue indefinitely with no serious repercussions. This, however, begs the question: What other upstanding institution could afford to do the same? Teachers were on strike for less than a year before a solution was reached out of necessity. So, why is it taking so long for the UCEA to view it as a necessity to appease the valid concerns of strikers?

This is not to say that reaching a solution is easy. Rather, it is to draw attention to the fact that university culture has become a strange microcosm where its politics can remain stagnant. Every year, new students come to university, pay their tuition fees, and eventually (hopefully) graduate — regardless of strike action. But there needs to be something beyond these formalities for universities to thrive and for progress to be possible. Above all, they must remain respected institutions that carry inherent value and unparalleled prestige. Addressing an atmosphere of student apathy and the ease with which students can move on, may prompt sure-fire action before an official resolution is reached.

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