Students could enter key professions such as medicine and teaching without the proper checks and balances due to universities working around the marking boycott, as a union chief accused them of "diluting academic standards".

The University and College Union is taking part in action short of a strike in a dispute over pay and conditions, meaning coursework and exams will not be marked by their members.

The action began on April 22, with the UCU stating that many members had been threatened with 50 per cent or even 100% paycuts.

Universities have sought to ensure students are still able to graduate, but The Herald can reveal a number of concerns with the processes adopted including:

  • Fears degrees will not be accepted by Professional Statutory Bodies
  • Concerns teachers or medical professionals will graduate without the proper checks and balances
  • Blanket awarding of 100% pass marks
  • Devalued 'dummy' degrees

Read More: University to dock pay for boycotting staff amid exam marking row

The Herald has chosen not to name the sources for this story.

Glasgow University

The Herald: Through the cloisters at the University of Glasgow. And a pretty cherry blossom to brighten the day..

A document circulated by the university laid out plans to graduate students without assessing all of their work, instead giving estimated marks which will form part of the degree qualification.

A source told The Herald that in one case where dissertations had not been marked and where ‘alternative markers’ could not be identified, senior management were asking if staff instead could ‘review’ to judge if the dissertation was a pass or fail. In another PHD students were approached to mark the dissertations of students in a completely different subject area.

A source said: "University bosses have tried to dress this approach up as some clever ‘methodology’ for estimating marks.

"Make no mistake, students are not getting a real or authentic grade, it’s a hastily devised, detrimental plan which creates deeply devalued dummy degrees, all so the university can keep the degree factory pumping out certificates rather than discussing improving working conditions and pay of staff. 

"This is all to the backdrop of the University of Glasgow tripling its income during the pandemic, an income primarily based on student fees. It’s nothing short of scandalous."

A Glasgow University spokesperson said: "We regret the UCU is taking industrial action, but the large majority of staff continue to work normally and the University is doing everything to keep disruption to students to a minimum.

"The University will continue to work with all Schools, seeking to ensure that no student is prevented from progressing to the next stage of their degree, or graduating, because of the industrial action.”

Strathclyde University

The Herald: GV of Strathclyde University's Jordanhill campus in Glasgow's west end, playing fields in foreground. Pic taken from top floor of Jordanhill school..

A source at Strathclyde University said guidance had been imposed which will mean students having around half of their work passed automatically without second marking or invigilating.

A document viewed by The Herald states that students should be allowed to advance in their course where partial marks make up 50% or more of a module assessment.

The guidance states "for progression Boards of Examiners, the starting position should be to facilitate and support student progression".

For those graduating, examiners will review previously marked modules to make degree award and classification decisions for each student.

If there are not enough marks to make a clear decision, discretionary powers can be used to make a 'provisional award'.

Where individual marks are not available, assessors will use "discretion and academic judgement" to decide on a level of degree.

In one faculty, a document viewed by The Herald states that missing marks should either be classified at 0 or 100 - a binary pass or fail.

One source said they feared this would mean blanket pass marks in practice.

Read More: Scottish Government accused of 'presiding over quiet death' of further education

A source said: "This will result in students qualifying as psychologists, teachers or medical professionals without the rigorous checks and balances that are required as part of the qualifying courses. This will have significant impact on those professions - which are already massively under-staffed.

"These changes to quality assurance can also leave longstanding questions over the validity of the degree. Will students be knowledgeable in their field? Is a 2:1 issued this year comparable with those from earlier years? Will this harm their employment opportunities?

"It certainly damages the reputation of Scottish Higher Education."

Another source said "you are going to see a record number of firsts, I can guarantee that".

University of Aberdeen

The Herald: University of AberdeenUniversity of Aberdeen (Image: MassanPH)

Additional measures put in place by the University of Aberdeen include allowing students with one course missing to graduate based on their current GPA (with compensatory credit).

Missing assessments are to be marked at the end of the boycott, and transcripts updated at that point. If a student receives a higher degree classification than they would have if the GPA included all their course marks, however, it's understood they will get to keep the higher degree award.

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A source said this "dilutes quality standards and inflates the value of the degree".

If students are missing two courses (60 credits) or an element such as a dissertation they will be given a certificate with no degree class until the marking boycott is over and work can be graded.

There are fears from some students that degrees which are subject to accreditation by a Professional Statutory Body may not meet the required standards.

A University of Aberdeen spokesperson said: “The marking and assessment boycott is part of a national dispute and we are making every effort to minimise disruption for our students. 

“As part of that effort, the University’s academic body Senate has approved temporary additional measures to support the small numbers of students affected by the boycott to graduate. These minor amendments will not impact academic quality and standards. Accreditation requirements will be met and will meet the required standards.”

Dundee University

The Herald: Dundee University

A source familiar with the matter at Dundee University stated exam boards would not necessarily be made up of experts in the relevant field, while marking is being diluted with module leaders not being involved and supervisors of dissertations not being the marker for the students' work.

It's understood that in medicine and law students will not be able to graduate, with their awards delayed until September at the earliest.

Heriot-Watt University

The Herald: Researchers at Heriot-Watt University made the claim

At Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh, a source alleged that emergency measures adopted to deal with the marking boycott amounted to "union-busting".

They stated that grades would be based only on one non-moderated mark, while in some cases dissertations had not been marked by the supervisor and only assessed by the second marker.

Heriot-Watt was said to be issuing "discretionary credits" for some key course aspects, which would not normally be accepted by professional bodies.

An open letter is said to have been signed by 100 staff with no response.

Queen Margaret University

The Herald: Queen Margaret UniversityQueen Margaret University (Image: Musselburgh Courier)

A source accused QMU senior management of rushing through "irresponsible and practically unworkable last minute interim assessment regulations".

They said that degrees would be awarded based on as little as two-thirds of coursework, while usual requirements for internal moderation and moderation by an external examiner have been waived.

A source said: "A large number of students at QMU study subjects in health sciences, degrees that should qualify them for jobs in nursing, physiotherapy, and podiatry.

"Many of these degrees require accreditation by an external body, since it is vital that key workers in healthcare are properly qualified.

"It is unclear whether QMU has bothered to consult with these accreditation bodies, and the big question marks over the validity of these students' degrees has serious implications for their future employability and carers. Students deserve so much better."

A Queen Margaret University spokesperson said: "We understand the concerns of students, and have worked to allay those in our communications.

"Importantly, most exam scripts and assignments have been marked as normal at QMU, and we expect fully that the significant majority of decisions on student award and progression will be based on students’ full assessable work. In the very limited number of cases where exam boards have used the flexibility of the published assessment regulations to make decisions on student awards, these decisions will be revisited once the assessment outstanding is marked.

"The interim regulations take full account of the need to preserve the academic standard of our awards and so do not have any negative impact on recognition of our degrees by professional bodies. We have stated clearly that, for all programmes subject to accreditation by professional and statutory bodies, the application of flexibility of progression regulations will be made in the context of any other guidance provided to the relevant Board of Examiners by those professional bodies."

Mary Senior, Scotland official UCU, said: "This legitimate industrial action  short of strike is aimed at getting employers to get back to the negotiating table and improve their offer on pay to resolve this dispute. 

Read More: School staff could strike as 8,000 to be balloted on action in pay dispute

“This action is the last thing staff want to do, however they have been left with no alternative after their pay has lost value by over 25% since 2009, and at the same time as they’re enduring unsafe workloads, insecure employment contracts, and gender, race and disability pay gaps.

“The blame for the disruption to students lies squarely with university bosses, who could resolve this dispute by bringing forward an improved offer.

"Instead, employers are spending their time trying to work around the marking boycott, by diluting academic standards and punishing hard working staff by hitting them with brutal pay deductions of 50% and even 100% in some cases.

"Our members are really heartened by the support they are receiving on campus from their students who want their lecturers, tutors and other staff to get fair pay and decent working conditions.

“University bosses need to stop attempting to circumvent this lawful industrial action short of strike and undermining academic standards, and instead get back to the negotiating table with an offer that addresses university workers’ demands”.

The University and College Employers Association said it could not comment on academic standards.

Raj Jethwa, Chief Executive of UCEA, said: “Withholding pay from the same staff who usually work hard for their HEIs and students is an incredibly difficult thing to do. But not withholding pay would be a far more a difficult thing to do. Not withholding pay would be allowing staff to target and impact students negatively without challenge or protection.

“Boycotting marking and assessment is a choice made UCU and in turn by its individual members. Students have no such choice. This is why HEIs must reluctantly withhold pay from staff targeting students.”

All universities were contacted for comment.