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Marking Boycott: Exam Boards Refuse to Ratify Grades

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Multiple Assessment Sub-Boards (ASBs) across several faculties have refused to ratify students’ marks during the ongoing Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) carried out by members of the University and College Union (UCU).

In a tweet published on 30 June, KCL UCU announced that multiple ASBs, the exam boards for each taught programme of study, will not ratify marks in certain subjects. Courses such as Digital Humanities, Economics, English, among others, will be affected, as they “agreed that the College’s ‘mitigation’ measures & its use of MAB-breaking markers aren’t fair to students”.

These mitigation measures include: the use of alternative marking models; rescaling how much a given assessment is worth (for example, an assignment worth 15% can determine 100% of the final grade); and progressing students pending assessment and/or ratification later.  

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the ratification of marks has been delegated to ASBs, which are typically made up of both academics within their given faculty, including members of KCL UCU, and external examiners from other universities. However, under the College’s Emergency Regulations, ASBs can proceed without being quorate and without external examiners.

KCL UCU has previously raised concerns about marking being reassigned to members of staff who are not on strike. In addition, when speaking to a KCL UCU executive, they alleged that the College has used PhD students and GTAs to mark assignments in several cases. They stated that “the quality of feedback has been quite low and doesn’t reflect the teaching content or advice that students got from their supervisors. Students got marks below their average or not what they were expecting”.

While the College has not explicitly stated that they have been doing this, in an MAB update earlier this month the College stated that it “will do everything possible to ensure exams, assessments and coursework are marked, and that they are marked in good time”.

However, first year Chemistry student representatives shared an email sent out to PGR and GTAs in the faculty in which they were asked if they would be willing to mark a number of Chemistry modules across all years. The message from the student representatives also stated a possibility that GTAs would give lower grades than what would be expected.

A copy of the email sent to Chemistry PGRs and Postdocs

Some students have noticed a change in the quality and relevance of feedback they received for their most recent assignments. One student stated that their feedback “was purely about structure and offered no valuable feedback on the content”, and even that the responses “were extremely removed from the examples and guidance” they were given.

They added, “it was pretty obvious that the feedback was given by a non-subject matter expert who wasn’t familiar with the course nor the assessment expectations.”

“Furthermore, I’ve had other disappointing marks from the Department of Political Economy (DPE) but for those I received harsh but fair content-based feedback which I honestly respected. This however was just a joke.”

This student asked their teacher if he would be taking part in the marking boycott, however they were told not to worry as “the marking won’t be affected”.

“What this suggests is that he was boycotting, but DPE, as per their policy, had arranged for other academics and PhD students to mark boycotted work.”

Another student also shared that the marks they received for this assessment period were lower than ones they had previously received: “my marks went from 80 earlier in the year to 42”.

The KCL UCU executive said that it is difficult to understand how widespread the MAB is as different departments have different mitigations in place. For example, the Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy (SSPP) sent out an email earlier this week assuring students that “the extensive arrangements and mitigations we have in place will allow our final year students in SSPP to receive a degree classification and attend their graduation as planned”. Meanwhile, the executive stated that the Arts and Humanities Faculty were not using alternative markers and have no mitigations in place for impact.

They also stated that KCL UCU has been trying to meet with management over the last month to explore negotiating. However, they also made clear that their position is that it is inappropriate for the College to use Emergency Regulations because industrial action is not a circumstance “beyond the control of the College”, as outlined in the 2022/23 Academic Regulations.

The executive expressed that “[KCL UCU] didn’t expect they would be so determined to break action at whatever cost.”

“It’s quite upsetting, to be honest.”

For final year students, graduating with a final mark is still uncertain. Whilst SSPP and the History department have both stated that graduation ceremonies will take place as scheduled, if the College does not ratify their grades beforehand students might end up not graduating with a ratified final grade.

The KCL UCU executive said that in theory the College could bypass its academic regulations and ratify marks that are not considered to meet their academic standards, however it is unknown if this will be the case.  

When asked to comment on the MAB, KCL UCU said: “this week many exam boards agreed that the College’s ‘mitigation’ measures and its use of MAB-breaking markers are not fair to students. Boards decided not to ratify marks. This affects thousands of students.

“It’s time that the College stops trying to circumvent staff action and academic standards and comes back to the negotiating table, nationally (by pushing UCEA to do so) and locally. Our demands are fair and reasonable. Putting students’ careers at risk is not.”

For more about the ongoing industrial action, click here.

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