A regulatory body is investigating fears that the ongoing marking boycott is impacting standards and equality at the University of Edinburgh.

The UCU union has been engaged in action short of a strike, effective from April 20, in a dispute over pay and conditions which means its members will not mark students' work.

As previously reported by The Herald, concerns have been raised about a dilution in standards across Scottish universities due to special measures put in place to get around the boycott, with concerns raised that students will be left with partially-marked 'dummy degrees'.

The Herald has learned that the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education Scotland (QAAS) is looking into the University of Edinburgh after a number of concerns were raised by staff over equality and standards.

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A letter signed by more than 40 staff laid out fears over dilution of academic standards, dilution of quality assurance due to no imperative that external examiners review marks, equality concerns and so-called 'no detriment' policies.

A source, who is not being named to protect their position, said: "One thing that’s really bothering the students is that the amended regulations were applied so unevenly.

“One of the big changes was that students could graduate even if they had 60 credits missing – that’s three courses so it could be all of your second semester work.

“Some exam boards have said ‘fine, yeah, OK it doesn’t matter that they’ve got 60 credits missing we’ll still give them the degree’.

The Herald: University of Edinburgh

“Other exam boards have said ‘we just can’t, in good conscience, give them a degree. They haven’t demonstrated attainment at that level’.

“So you could have a student who has taken practically the same courses, but with a wildly different outcome.

“So all the politics students, for example, if you were missing 60 credits - as most of them were - they’re not getting a degree.

“But if they did a joint honours, economics and politics, they are going to get their degree because the economics exam board just put them through.

“I just spoke to one of the students who’s on holiday and he said ‘half of us here are celebrating and half have got absolutely nothing’.

“It’s just so awful.”

Among the concerns raised with QAA Scotland were surrounding equality. It's feared students who may have been granted extensions or late submission due to special circumstances could be adversely affected, with those handing in coursework by the original deadline more likely to have a full run of marks.

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It's not clear if an Equality Impact Assessment was carried out before the special measures were adopted.

It's also alleged that the University of Edinburgh is in effect following a 'no detriment' policy which is likely to lead to an increased number of first class honours degrees being awarded.

That could, in turn, impact the value of a first class degree to potential employers.

A source said: "The thing about trying to get the QAAS involved is that even the students who now think they’re one of the lucky ones, if there’s going to be massive grade inflation then they’re not that lucky.

"There will be suspicion over the whole cohort’s degrees in some ways, because the universities have adopted this no detriment policy. They’re not calling it no detriment, because they know how that looks, but it’s in the regulations that students’ marks can’t go down.

The Herald: Students taking exam with stress in school classroom.; Shutterstock ID 759633430.

“So any time a piece of work has been scrapped, or the credit’s been awarded on aggregate as opposed to an actual mark, the student always has to go up not down.

“So it does mean we’re going to see, if the work gets marked, way more firsts and 2:1s than normal. So I just think everyone loses.

“It sounds like I don’t want students to get firsts, I really do but you want it to be the ones who worked really hard to get it.

“It’s supposed to be a distinction, it sets you apart: it can’t be everyone."

A QAA Scotland spokesperson said: "We can confirm that an application from University of Edinburgh staff has been made to the Scottish Quality Concern Scheme regarding this matter. However, as the issues raised are still under consideration, it would be inappropriate for us to comment at this time.

"QAA Scotland publishes information from the Scheme through its annual reporting on quality concerns, or through a full report if the concern results in a targeted peer review."

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Mary Senior, Scotland official UCU, said: “University bosses have shown that rather than negotiating on staff pay, they’re prepared to subject a cohort of students to graduating with unmarked work or unclassified degrees, and with professional bodies questioning the validity of qualifications.

"UCU warned months ago that this was a real possibility, but university employers chose to circumvent lawful action short of strike without a thought for the consequences.

“Given employer actions, it’s not surprising that concerns have been raised with academic standards body QAA, and that the agency is investigating.  While we don’t want to prejudge findings, QAA’s own guidance on the dispute encourages universities to mark all work, and it’s clear that in many universities this has not happened.

“QAA’s interest in the actions of universities in this dispute is both welcome and necessary.  But, of course, the best way to support students and ensure staff are marking and assessing students’ work again is for university principals to get their employers’ association UCEA back round the negotiating table with a better offer on pay and working conditions.”

A UCEA spokesperson said: "UCEA has been waiting at the negotiating table, contrary to UCU’s misleading comments otherwise, and remains committed to discussing non-pay matters as soon as the marking and assessment boycott is called off. UCU must be honest with its members that, while there is no possibility of a new pay uplift in the 2023-24 pay round, there is so much more to negotiate on. This includes a review of the pay spine, workload, contract types and further action to reduce disability, ethnicity and gender pay gaps in the sector – despite these being lower than the wider economy.

“Crucially, we also want to work together with the unions on an independent review of the sector’s finances to avoid similar damaging disputes in the future. We urge UCU and the other unions to return to the table.”

A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: "We are committed to ensuring that every assessment counts, even if that takes some time. The final degree that students are awarded will be based on the full body of work submitted and will be assessed in its entirety.

“The University has not implemented a ‘no-detriment’ policy for this industrial action. Our approach to the marking of assessments and dissertations is in line with the sector as a whole, including progression and degree outcomes. The measures we have in place to account for the impact of industrial action are accompanied by conditions to ensure that academic standards are maintained at all times.

"Where special circumstances are applied, for example for students with learning adjustments, these are considered on a case-by-case basis by those assessing students’ work. Careful thought is given to the current circumstances, among all other relevant considerations, aligned with our policy.

"It is our commitment to academic standards that, unfortunately, is leading to the delays in outcomes experienced by some students."