Summer graduation season passed this year with the same flurry of black robes and caps as tradition entails, and the same smiling photos that mark the end of four years of swotting in the library – with some fun in between.
But for this year’s graduates, it has been four years of unprecedented challenges and disruption, only to end in uncertainty over what exactly they had achieved. Don’t zoom in too closely to those graduation photos – many of these students are actually graduating with blank degrees.
An undergraduate finishing a four-year degree in 2023 was in their first year when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and they, along with their newfound freedom and friends were ushered out of student halls and back home. The next two years were spent watching lectures via Zoom and following blended learning when the return to campus was possible.
The last academic year marked the closest to normality this cohort enjoyed, largely free from pandemic restrictions but then marred by strikes, with new dates announced at the beginning of every term and culminating in the University and College Union (UCU)’s ongoing marking and assessment boycott.
The boycott means thousands of students across the UK have finished university without having had final assessments or even dissertations marked.
These students walked across the stage at graduation without knowing the final degree classification they merited, or in the worst affected cases, which namely took place at the University of Edinburgh, students donned the robes without confirmation they had actually achieved a degree; rather having been given a ‘certificate of completion’ for their four-year effort.
The action short of a strike, in the form of the refusal of lecturers to mark work, has perhaps garnered more attention and outrage than the missed lectures themselves, with the ceremonies branded a farce.
The UCU is locked in a dispute with its employer, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) over pay and working conditions. The trade union says the UCEA needs to get back to the negotiating table armed with a new pay offer before the disruption can end.
As well as pay, staff are striking over the increasing use of casualised contracts across the sector and working well beyond the hours they are accounted for.
Meanwhile, college students are currently facing a resulting boycott – unlike university students, their work has actually been marked but lecturers are not performing anything beyond their contractual duties, and so are not inputting these grades into the computing system.
Those wishing to continue their education at university will face more strike action once they get there. With no end in sight to the marking boycott, the UCU has already scheduled more dates for strike action for the new term at universities before the end of September and is preparing for a new ballot that could see industrial action continue well into 2024.
This is what awaits freshers from college after they get over the uncertainty of knowing whether they will actually get to enrol at university. Since college lecturers have not updated the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) on their students’ final grades, this then could not be updated on UCAS – the portal that updates university offers from conditional to unconditional.
Most universities have now confirmed that they will honour students’ places despite the unconfirmed grades, similar to how undergraduates are being allowed onto postgraduates and graduate schemes for some of the UK’s biggest companies without confirmation of that first degree.
On this uncertainty, Sher Khalid-Ali of the group Student Action at New College Lanarkshire, said of university and college managements: “They literally do not care about students and the irony of universities who didn’t even hand out degrees this year, suddenly caring about the upholding of academic standards is unreal.”
One art student who is heading to Edinburgh University from college has already faced strikes every year. She said: “People have fallen through the cracks. People have not been working to the standards that they really could have if they’d had their tutors there.
“We’ve written letters to MPs, councillors and tried to do everything we could but it all falls on deaf ears every single year.”
The unwavering support of students at colleges for their lecturers was apparent; perhaps given that many of these learners are people who have taken time out of education and returned as an adult means they have a newfound appreciation for its value and the teachers who make it possible.
And this is not to say this support does not also exist on university campuses. Groups like Student Solidarity Coalition stood on picket lines in large numbers with striking staff at the University of Glasgow, and across other campuses.
At graduations, many students accessorised the traditional outfits with a pink UCU sash, while others ripped up certificates and handed Vice Chancellors P45s while walking across the stage.
As a 2023 graduate myself, I do sense a large feeling of solidarity with lecturers who, having sat in classrooms and observed over the last four years, are clearly overworked and feel disillusioned with the way their sector is going.
That being said, attending university is a big investment, both in money and years of your life and I doubt many of today’s students would agree they are seeing value for that.
Industrial action, with valued and talented staff arguing with handsomely paid senior management figures, has become part and parcel of the university experience.
It is clear there needs to be a conversation about the state of the higher education sector. Otherwise, college students will go to university to face more strikes, and who knows whether my cohort will have our grades by the time Bute Hall and other grand halls across the country are filled up with grads and their families again next summer.
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