22 JUNE 2023 | INVESTIGATIONS
“Immoral”, “depressing”, “a waste of time”. Edinburgh students reveal to William Hallowell how it feels to graduate from university without a degree amid long-standing union disputes.
This week has been a dramatic one for staff and students at Edinburgh University. On Monday, thousands of final-year students at the institution were informed they would not be graduating with a degree classification as a result of ongoing union disputes.
Since late April, during a crucial time for students, the University and College Union (UCU) commenced its marking and assessment boycott (MAB) in protest for better pay and conditions. Academics are refusing to mark final year students’ work, effectively meaning they will go through the pomp of graduation with nothing to show for it.
Edinburgh students are furious and upset. In her final year, Millie Lord describes it as their efforts having gone to “waste”.
She said: “It feels quite heartbreaking knowing I will graduate without a degree. After four years of hard work, including two of Covid and online learning, it all feels like a waste of time, effort and money.
“I’m one of the lucky ones – I don’t have a Master’s or job application that requires a degree certificate, and I am not an international student who needs a degree certificate for their visa.
“For such people, it puts them in a deeply precarious position.”
Millie criticises the university for prioritising itself over students and explains that the position thousands now find themselves in sends the message that their efforts have been meaningless.
“It seems like the university is doing what it often does and [is] protecting its reputation over student wellbeing and needs,” she added.
In spite of the fact that scores of students will not receive their final grades, and that they have been left with a lack of clarity as to when that might be, they will still graduate. But many feel there is little point in attending when they won’t be given the hard-earned reward at the end of it – some won’t even attend at all.
“It is insulting,” says Millie, that “although some have received degrees and deserve to be celebrated, the continuation of graduation when the university has failed to give degrees is senior management trying to keep up the façade that everything is going well, when in reality it is absolute chaos and the majority of students have been let down”.
While she describes her position as fortunate, it is clear that others are not so much. Foreign students have been placed in an incredibly uncertain position and have been given little guidance by Edinburgh University as to their next steps.
Aarti Mukhedkar is an international student from India who has been left in the unknown. With her student visa set to run out in September, the Social Anthropology student doesn’t know what her situation could be several weeks from now. She has racked up £85,000 in tuition fees alone during her four years at university.
“I have received very limited information on what it will mean for my visa, because according to the student visa I have right now, I’m supposed to leave the country at the end of September,” she said.
“And in between when I would have received my degree and when I have to leave on my current visa, I would have either hopefully applied for a job visa that you need for your degree, or applied for a graduate visa, for which also you need your degree.
“I don’t know what this means. I hope there’s no in-between period where I’m not allowed to stay in the country and I have to go home – but I have a job.”
“It’s scary to think about,” the student added.
The Home Office has since confirmed that students will be able to apply to extend their student visas from within the UK whilst they await their results, Edinburgh University announced on Tuesday. However, this will likely offer little consolation for foreign students given that the university cannot say when grades will be made available.
But in spite of the marking boycott having such a significant impact on so many final-years, students remain in support of the UCU’s strike action and rather aim their anger towards the higher ranks of the university. Many are clear in the defence of their lecturers.
Harry Watson, who studies Political Science, says the university told students they had attempted to put an end to the dispute by cutting the pay of all those striking by 50 percent.
Critical of the university’s approach, he said: “The only thing they could think of is do the most immoral s*** possible to try and fix [the situation], and beyond that they’re more focused on getting the year group through and out of their sight.
He describes the situation as depressing, accusing the university of “not giving a f***” and that “from the outside in, it very much looks like they’re trying to turn the students against the strikers as a way of trying to get them to stop”. The student admits he won’t attend his graduation ceremony as a result of this week’s events.
One lecturer at Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science, who asked not to be named, is taking part in the boycott. She describes the situation as “devastating”.
“I’m only beginning to appreciate how the students feel, but I know how hard they’ve worked.
“As someone who has been teaching them for the past four years, I want nothing more than to mark their work and to be able to be there at graduation to celebrate what they’ve done.
“The marking and assessment boycott is really a final straw for us. Our salaries have been reducing for the last 10 years and the university continues to deprioritise staff pay.
“At this point, we’re feeling really desperate, so we’ve not taken this decision [to strike] lightly … I didn’t believe the university would let it go this far,” the lecturer continued, adding: “I couldn’t even have imagined that the university would let students graduate without their grades.”
She said the university has “promised” its students that they will eventually receive their degrees, but that this is unlikely to happen whilst academics continue to remain working for half their pay.
The academic also revealed that the university has refused to disclose how many schools will come to be affected by the boycott. She says that, in addition to Social and Political Science, the Schools of Literature and Language, Biological Science, Maths and Geography have all been affected.
One Economics student explained to me how he was told by the university to expect not to receive his final grades, which he says will be declared officially next week.
Like Harry, Millie also expresses her support for the lecturers’ boycott. She said: “During my four years at Edinburgh, it has always been the teaching staff who seem to care about my wellbeing and my learning far more than senior management.
“The real-terms pay cuts that staff deal with means many are financially struggling as the executive and the university hoards wealth.
“How are we supposed to get some of the best university teaching in Britain?”, she said, “if staff are being underpaid?”
Amid the “chaotic” situation, as Millie put it, a spokesperson for UCU Scotland said: “Students at Edinburgh and universities across Scotland will rightly be upset at the delays and confusion around their qualifications, or that they’re graduating with unclassified degrees.
“The blame for this, and for disruption and delay to graduations, lies squarely with university Principals and management. They could resolve this dispute if they wanted.
“Staff chose to work in universities because they want to teach and support students. The last thing they want to do is to boycott marking and assessments, but they have been left with no other option.
“University Principals have failed to address the real-terms pay cut staff have endured since 2009, the unsafe workloads, pay inequality and precarious employment contracts. They are letting down both staff and students.”
What remains to be seen in the long term is exactly when students will receive their marks. A major concern for them, however, is whether they ever receive their grades at all. In a statement, Edinburgh University said it recognises the impact that ungraded degrees will have on its students, stating: “we share their disappointment”.
But for many students, an apology may be too little, too late.