UCU MAB – Mitigation strategies at RHUL

In line with other institutions participating in the UK national marking and assessment boycott (MAB), Royal Holloway senior management have announced sweeping deregulation and emergency measures as a desperate attempt to  ensure that students can graduate or progress in their studies. These regulations consist of a set of emergency regulations and accompanying guidance on scaling [link to PDF].

The headline measures proposed are:

  • To allow modules with just 20% of completed and marked assessment to be upscaled, with a vague provision that ‘learning outcomes’ have been met within the module or through other modules in the course. This means that a student’s final grade may be based on just 20% of their performance in a module.
  • To allow the normal regulations concerning scaling up coursework to be applied with just 50% of coursework completed and marked, instead of the usual requirements of scaling only being an option when two-thirds of coursework has been submitted and marked; in other words, if a student had just 50% of their work marked, it could be scaled up to be 100% of their final mark.
  • An unlimited number of ‘modules can be ‘allowed’, an outcome previously put in place to protect students experiencing long-term sickness or other extenuating circumstances where credit is awarded to the module without a mark being given or any work needing to be marked. Presumably 100% coursework dissertations could be ‘allowed’, meaning that months of students’ hard work will go unread.
  • Students to be allowed to progress between year groups with no minimum grade average required – meaning that students could fail most of their second year and still progress into third year.

These measures place undue additional workload on colleagues responsible for assessment boards, and moves responsibility away from the senior management team of the institution. They unfairly place decision-making primarily on the chairs of Department Assessment Boards. Decisions about scaling are said to be a matter of ‘academic judgement’, presumably as a means of minimizing the grounds on which students might appeal such decisions.

These measures also raise serious questions about quality control and assurance: how can students and employers be confident in their final degree result? In many cases, these mitigations are nigh-impossible to moderate or for external examiners to certify. Many accreditation bodies also require minimum grade averages for progression, and a completed (and assessed) dissertation project. Without these, the College’s ability to guarantee the quality of its degrees in comparison to sector-wide standards is almost zero.

Upscaling decisions need to be approved by module convenors; for this reason, the branch encourages all members to attend their department assessment boards (DABs) to register their concerns, have those concerns minuted, and potentially to use their DAB vote to veto such decisions.

We recommend that members take the following actions:

  • Academic staff should put their concerns about these measures in writing to their line managers and executive deans. We hope to provide a template letter shortly.
  • Academic staff in departments with degrees monitored by regulating bodies should report their concerns, using this template letter [link to Word file].
  • DAB chairs should make external examiners aware of these mitigation measures.
  • Students should write to senior management to express their concerns.

Royal Holloway UCU condemns these poorly thought mitigation strategies in the strongest possible terms. They unfairly impact multiple stakeholders in the university, first and foremost students, but also professional services staff and academic staff with administrative responsibilities for assessment boards. We are also disappointed that the senior leadership would prefer to move such extreme measures instead of simply calling on UCEA to resume negotiations. Indeed, many of these measures go further than those brought in during the pandemic – and there has been little to no consultation about their impact, in contrast to the pandemic regulations.

The branch’s drop-in meeting on Friday 2 June at 1pm has been tailored to be specifically on MAB mitigations and concerns. We will be e-mailing members with a reminder of the Zoom link shortly.  

Posted on behalf of the RHUL UCU Branch Committee


A Green Response To The USS Data Breach

If you are feeling hacked off about the USS hacking and data breach, in my experience, donating to the legal case against USS helps alleviate the hacked off feeling just a tad. This is a critical time to donate to ensure the campaign reaches its stretch goals for the Court of Appeal date on 13th June. Of course, by paying into USS we are also unavoidably paying into the fund that will pay for their lawyers …

Just remember that the legal case has already shifted USS behaviour in several ways, especially in relation to sustainability. But do you trust them to restore our pensions without legal pressure? (Just noting that the lawyers who have taken on this legal case, Leigh Day, hit the headlines last week for their success in winning significant defamation damages for Chris Packham in a High Court trial.)

My report for the UCU 2022-3 AGM noted that in relation to environmental sustainability at Royal Holloway, the appointment of a Principal who takes the climate crisis seriously has significantly increased the chances that RHUL will cease to be a ‘laggard’ in HE. As UCU Green Rep, I am now part of the Sixth Pillar team, working on the college’s environment strategy [VPN needed]. I am hoping to feed in from the UCU Green reps resources, particularly in relation to examples of best practice in other unis. I am always keen to hear from others at RHUL about what could make a difference, so please do email if you have ideas. 

Meanwhile on a positive note … UCU is supporting Carbon Literacy Training at RHUL for the seventh time, and here’s a quick example of how CLT has impacted the Students’ Union. SU President Maia Jarvis completed CLT training and pledged to work out a plan for a sustainability guide for SU societies and student groups. This guide was produced last year; Maia introduced the first ever SU Sustainability Awards at the Colours Ball (sports group awards) and Society Awards: Cheerleading and the Enactus student group were the winners. Maia will also speaking about students and climate issues at a UUK conference this week. UCU supported Maia’s divestment from fossil fuels campaign; this is going well and the staff petition was signed by 132 people across academic and professional services departments. There are still many governance hoops to go through, and in order for RHUL to divest fully USS would also have to divest, but I want to thank Varyl Thorndycraft for his help with this campaign.

Liz Schafer
RHUL UCU Environmental Sustainability Officer

Crowd Justice USS campaign: save the pension, save the planet

USS pension scheme members will have noted that our pension has become more and more expensive over recent years. This has led many low-paid staff, and that’s a lot of us as the real value of salary has crashed, to opt out of the scheme. That means workers are missing out on the employers’ significant pension contributions and will not accrue years of guaranteed pension income. Despite the rising cost of contributions,  in 2022 savage cuts were made to our benefits. These cuts make retirement an even more distant dream for workers in universities. This led some UK academics to set up the Save The Pension, Save The Planet Crowd Justice campaign, led by Ewan McGaughey and Neil Davies (a Reader in Law at Kings College and a Professor of Medical Statistics at UCL respectively).

What are the aims of the campaign?

The original case had six grounds which have been whittled down to four over various court appearances. The following four arguments will be presented in the UK Court of Appeal next month.

  1. The valuation methodology used to justify cuts in 2022 assumed 0% growth of assets. This is empirically unfounded but was chosen to show a deficit of assets versus liabilities for political reasons. This legal case has led USS to increase their predictions for growth, i.e. it has moved into marginally positive territory.  Historically real growth is about 5% real terms. The Crowd Justice campaign claim it was an abuse of power to build in such a stupid predicted growth rate.

The current valuation methodology now assumes 1.8% real terms growth. The disastrous 2022 Truss mini-budget meant the pension scheme lost £20 billion of assets (due to reliance on Liability Driven Investments), but despite this, the growth of interest rates means the scheme’s assets will increase more quickly.

2. Cost of management of USS: why not cut these rather than benefits? USS has charged increasing amounts to run our pension scheme – costs have risen by more than 1000% since 2008. There has been no effort to justify these rising costs.

3. Cuts have had equalities impacts: younger pension scheme members are more female and ethnically diverse. As these scheme members are losing most, there are indirect equalities impact. There has been no equality impact assessment, which is required for changes of this nature.

4. Investment in fossil fuels: where’s the divestment plan for USS? Fossil fuels have been terrible assets, they are volatile and USS could be left with stranded assets as other funds exit. USS should never, as scheme directors, risk significant loss to the scheme and its members.

Aren’t we getting our pensions back anyway?

The USS asset base shows a surplus over liabilities of more than £7 billion, which highlights how unnecessary was the assault on pensions last year.  Given the surplus, USS is consulting employers about their willingness to restore benefits and ideally to charge both employers and workers lower contributions. This will help the balance sheets of our employers, allowing them to pay us more. It is unlikely that workers in USS will resist the opportunity for benefits restoration and potentially lower contributions rates. However, until the deal is signed off, our employers and USS may choose not to reverse their chosen pension cuts. 

The mood is more positive. But be aware that the potential restoration of USS benefits which were stolen in 2022 is down to this case and the prolonged and determined industrial action of UCU members. All workers in HE have reason to be grateful to both campaigns.

Continue reading “Crowd Justice USS campaign: save the pension, save the planet”

“To all who come to this happy place, welcome”: staff survey results released

Colleagues will have noticed the results from the 2023 College People and Culture Survey, which were included in this week’s Staff Newsletter.

The headline scores certainly make for sobering reading:

  • 52% of staff disagree or strongly disagree that “The pace of work enables me to balance personal life and job responsibilities.”
  • 34% of staff disagree or strongly disagree that “I feel the value I bring to my role, wider team, and the College is recognised.”
  • 38% of staff disagree or strongly disagree that “Leaders demonstrate that people are important to the College’s overall success.”
  • 39% of staff disagree or strongly disagree that “Information and knowledge is shared openly across different parts of the College.”
  • Just 29% of staff agree or strongly agree that “The university senior leadership team listen to and respond to the views of colleagues.”
  • 135 staff (14% of total responses) have experienced bullying or harassment in the last 12 months.
  • 52% of staff agree or strongly agree that they are satisfied that the university is committed to addressing bullying and harassment, and 46% agree or strongly agree that they were satisfied with how bullying and/or harassment are addressed within their department.

These results might not surprise colleagues. While we share the concerns outlined by the Principal, the newsletter’s foregrounding of the improvement in numbers from the 2022 survey feels like cold comfort to a beleaguered workforce. It remains unclear whether casualised members of staff were invited to participate in the survey, though reports to the branch suggest that at least some members were unaware of the opportunity to contribute. Unfortunately, this is another example of the way in which casualised colleagues can be excluded, unintentionally or otherwise, from college life.

The numbers on bullying and harassment match the pattern seen in casework undertaken by the branch on behalf of members, and again, we share the Principal’s concerns.

The other headline results have without question been contributory factors to the industrial action undertaken at local and national level this year. Campus unions are due to be briefed by senior management on the full results, which will take longer to analyse. The branch committee notes that the recent high turnover in College Senior Management affords a unique opportunity for new stakeholders to proactively change the workplace culture at Royal Holloway. We look forward to participating in these constructive conversations and will report back to members in due course.

The branch holds its AGM on 24th May – come along to hear more about the work that the committee are doing on your behalf, and to share your views.

Posted on behalf of the RHUL UCU Branch Committee

Assessment guidance poses risk to integrity of marks

Another day of the MAB, another example of ill-thought-out proposals from management.

This time, it’s an email sent out by Academic Quality and Policy to circulate guidance for assessment boards, program directors and heads of department about how to mitigate any possible disruption caused by the MAB.

The headlines are:

  1. Executive Deans and Heads of Department have been told to prioritise finalists and thereafter postgraduate students. To achieve this, the advice is to “rearrange marking responsibilities so that final year marking is completed in full with a complete set of marks available for finalists.”
  2. As far as the Guidelines for Examiners and Assessors that state that “student work counting towards the final assessment (award) should be double-marked or blind double-marked or single marked with moderation/ sampling” are concerned, the circulated guidance suggests that “chair’s action” on the part of a School Education Committee could be used to approve exceptions to the College’s usual quality control procedures – namely, that decisions to bypass this process could be made with no scrutiny or objection.
  3. Further guidance will be issued relating to Scaling, Progression and Classification.

There are a number of very serious issues here that affect both staff and students. Perhaps the most serious is point 2, in that the academic quality control of vital assessments is at risk (making it particularly ironic that colleagues in AQPO have been asked to circulate this guidance). Students, particularly finalists, must have an assurance that the marks they receive have been fairly ratified via blind second marking and/or moderation. To not offer that assurance is to severely reduce the trust that students can have in the marking process.

Furthermore, to rearrange marking (as per the guidance in point 1) risks similar degrading of trust given that many finalists’ modules are specialised subjects. To have intricate work marked by non-specialists is another way in which the quality of marking risks degradation. We saw an extreme case of this last year when Queen Mary brought in external markers who were not qualified to offer appropriate academic feedback on student work.

Finally, if scaling is used, this assumes that marks obtained earlier in the year (or indeed in previous years) may be used as the basis of finalist or progression marks. This has serious repercussions for the exit velocities of students. If final assessments have been undertaken by students, but never marked, all the hard work and extra learning that has gone into that final exam, essay, performance or other assessment will have been in vain.

Overall, these instructions sadly offer further evidence of SMT’s panic and their rushed attempts to mitigate industrial action. The better action to mitigate the MAB would be to pressure UCEA into meaningful talks, and engage with the union far more constructively about the severity of ill-thought deductions.

Posted on behalf of the RHUL UCU Branch Committee