World (AP)

Lecturers in the UK refuse to mark exams in labor dispute, leaving thousands unable to graduate | AP News

Lecturers in the UK refuse to mark exams in labor dispute, leaving thousands unable to graduate | AP News

LONDON (AP) — Hafsa Yusuf was supposed to graduate last week. The 21-year-old English literature major had spent 200 pounds ($255) on graduation gown rental, photography and tickets for her family to attend the ceremony.

But just two weeks before the big day, Queen Mary University of London sent her an email saying she couldn’t graduate because of industrial action taken by academic staff across the U.K.

Lecturers at some 140 universities have refused to mark exam papers and coursework, in an escalation of a simmering dispute over pay and working conditions.

“Because of the marking boycott, they didn’t have enough grades to confirm that I was able to graduate,” Yusuf said. “We all paid as normal, just to get an email two weeks beforehand saying you can’t come.”

She said that while most of her family live in the U.K., other students are international and have paid for flights for their families to come from abroad. “It’s really devastating,” she said.

Yusuf and the class of 2023 had already endured severe disruptions to their college experience. They entered university in 2020, at the height of COVID-19 lockdowns. Then came university staff strikes, part of a huge and ongoing wave of industrial action by hundreds of thousands of U.K. workers to demand better pay amid a cost-of-living crisis.

Now thousands of students from Cambridge to Edinburgh are unable to graduate or face indefinite delays in receiving their final marks because of the latest labor dispute, which began in April and shows no sign of resolution.

It’s not clear exactly how many students are affected, but the University and College Union, which represents academics and lecturers, estimated that “easily tens of thousands” will not graduate this summer as disruptions look likely to drag on into the next academic year.

Yusuf said at least 130 students from her faculty, the school of English and Drama, have been affected, with many left in limbo because they have no idea when they can get the grades they need for pending job offers and postgraduate study opportunities.

The uncertainties have been particularly worrying for international students, who face additional complications and costs to remain in the U.K. Those hoping to stay in the country to look for work can only apply for a graduate visa after they get their degree.

Yusuf, who wants to pursue a career in teaching, has got a place on a training program starting in September. She has obtained a results transcript from her university, but she’s worried that’s not enough to compensate for the fact that she hasn’t yet got her degree.

Her fellow classmate, Saja Altamimi, said she did attend her graduation ceremony — though she doesn’t have her final results, either.

While the professor in charge of her dissertation wasn’t involved in the marking boycott, she’s still waiting for grades from some course modules.

Like many other students, Altamimi stressed that her anger and frustration isn’t directed at her teachers, but rather at senior university leaders. They argue that college leadership has the power to stop the disruptions, but chose not to negotiate to end the dispute or address the reasons behind the industrial action.

Altamimi said she wore a bright pink sash that read “Settle the dispute” — the striking academics’ slogan — at her graduation ceremony in protest.

“I decided to show off my sash, to get that message out there,” she said. “I’m not in any way upset at my teachers, I value and respect their decision. We just wanted to show solidarity in any way we can.”

Elsewhere, graduating students have refused to shake university leaders’ hands on stage, or disrupted graduation ceremonies by chanting “Pay your workers!”

The University and College Union blames college bosses for “throwing students under the bus.” It argues that universities have enough surplus income to raise staff wages by 10%, but are refusing to offer staff anything on pay increases.

“The pay of my colleagues has decreased in real terms, it has been cut by around 20 to 25% over the last 10 or so years. And though there have been very, very incremental increases, these have been well below the rate of inflation,” said Tanzil Chowdhury, a senior law lecturer at Queen Mary University.

He added that the majority of academic staff in the U.K. are overworked and have long endured insecure contracts, “working month to month or year to year.”

Chowdhury acknowledged that the marking boycott has been “really tough on students.”

“We don’t take these decisions lightly. We take them with great sacrifice to ourselves and our students,” he said. “But we want to create better working conditions so that we can thrive in a way that will also allow our students to thrive as well.”

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association, which represents colleges in negotiations with unions, says there will be no pay increase in 2023 to 2024 — but insisted it was ready to negotiate on other issues like workload and contract types. The body estimated that the majority of universities are not affected by the industrial action, and that at most of the affected institutions, less than 2% of students were unable to graduate.

For students caught in the middle of the bitter dispute, the confusion and upset caused by the graduation delays are very real.

“We feel like we’ve been stripped of our right to graduate, especially after paying so much money and especially after being impacted by COVID lockdowns and online teaching,” said Sophia Shahid, another student at Queen Mary. “We feel really hard done by and this is just the cherry on top.”

Some students are looking into legally challenging universities for breach of contract.

“We pay hundreds and thousands of pounds. International students fees are sky high. We expect to get a graduation. We expect to get our grades back on time,” Yusuf said. “You almost think to yourself, what am I paying for? Why am I in all of this debt and I don’t even get a graduation ceremony at the end of it?”