Graduation ceremonies will take place at universities across Scotland this week amid confusion, uncertainty and no final confirmation of degrees due to a marking boycott carried out by the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU). 

Final year students at the University of Edinburgh will attend graduation ceremonies to receive a ‘letter of completed studies’ after some degree decisions have been ‘delayed’. At Strathclyde, some graduates are being left with a non-honours degree in a non-specific subject, which does not recognize the work completed in their final honours year. 

Final year students at the University of Edinburgh were due to receive their results today, but instead many were told that decisions had been ‘delayed’ and that they would receive a ‘letter of completed studies’ rather than a degree. Other students did receive a classification as normal, and others received an unclassified degree. 

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Students in some subjects including politics and languages were simply told that their degree decision was ‘delayed’, and that they could request a letter of completed studies should they need it for post graduate plans like jobs and masters courses. Edinburgh’s student representative for the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures is yet to hear of a single graduating student who will have a classification on graduation day. 

Confusion over some students being able to attend graduation ceremonies without having an actual degree has led to concern over how future plans will be affected. The Herald spoke to Hannah McCormick, a final year who studied languages, who is now concerned she will not be approved for the work visa she needs to relocate to Japan where she has a graduate hob, since the visa requires a degree. 

“The way the university management has handled it has been appallingly poor and has left it to the individual teachers who are equally frustrated as we are to deal with our concerns. I just feel so hopeless and crushed. If I lose this job it’ll have a devastating impact on my mental health,” Hannah said. 

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Lily Darvey, a final year student of Japanese at the University of Edinburgh, was so disappointed to hear that her degree result was indefinitely deferred that she penned a letter to Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson. In the letter, she lays out what she sees as the three consequences on students of the marking boycott: a “useless graduation” with students not seeing the point on attending, the suffering of student wellbeing with the situation making them feel “inadequate, small and worthless”, and finally “losing all sense of security” due to how the uncertainty could affect students’ next steps. 

The letter goes on to invite the Vice-Chancellor to imagine how students and staff are feeling, and “if that is not enough” how it might affect himself as the principal, due to the “reputation of the university diminishing”. 

University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: “Many of our final year students have received their degree results as expected today. Some students have received a provisional award and will receive their degree classification at a later date. For others, a decision regarding the outcome of their degree has been delayed owing to the marking and assessment boycott. We have contacted these students individually to advise them of next steps. We recognise the impact this is having on their lives and future plans and we share their frustration at being caught in the crossfire of this national dispute.

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Strathclyde University

“Our priority now is to ensure that any outstanding exams and assessments are marked in a timely manner while maintaining rigorous academic standards, so that we can provide a full and final degree classification for all students due to complete their programme this year.”

Meanwhile, at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, some students will attend graduation ceremonies to be presented with a non-honours in a broad faculty rather than their specific subject. This means students who completed four years of study are to be presented with the same award as students who dropped out after third year and failed to complete the fourth year where the ‘honours’ is earned. 

The Herald spoke to Adam Binnie, a final year Strathclyde student studying Politics and Journalism. Despite having received marks on all his courses well above the threshold needed to achieve a first class honours degree, the student will receive a BA in Humanities and Social Sciences, rather than the BA (Hons) in Politics and Journalism he should receive. This is because two of the courses he studied this year are still under a ‘partial mark’, meaning they have been marked by an initial set of markers but not moderated. 

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Adam told the Herald: “After four years of hard work, already disrupted by Covid-19 and subsequent online learning, I will be graduating from the University of Strathclyde with the same degree as some of my friends who dropped out last summer. It’s laughable really. The university claim they do not have enough evidence to award my classification but have failed to communicate how they are collecting evidence and what meets the threshold for ‘enough evidence’ to award my classification. We have been told to fill in a survey to arrange a meeting to speak with a staff member to answer our questions, but to nobody’s surprise, there has been no follow-up since said email was sent out 4 days ago.”

“Come graduation day, I will meet up with my friend Olivia, who dropped out of 4th year after semester 1 to move to Dubai. We will both be awarded the same ‘ordinary’ degree,” Adam continued. 

Strathclyde’s UCU branch told the Herald: “Universities across the UK are now awarding generic, non-descript degrees which fail to respect the hard work of students over the past four or more years. It is shameful that students who specialised in areas of study are now being awarded degrees which bear little resemblance to their expertise. This is occurring because university management would rather override quality assurance mechanisms in order to portray a sense of calm and ‘business as usual’ across the campus. This is far from the truth. Students’ work is being grossly undervalued and the reputation of the university is being damaged.” 

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The University of Glasgow

A spokesperson for the University of Strathclyde said: “Due to industrial action by members of the University and College Union, it has not been possible to finalise the degree classifications for a small number of our students due to some staff withholding marks.  

“The University has awarded unclassified degrees to these students to enable them to graduate and celebrate their achievements with their peers. Affected students will receive their official degree classifications as soon as possible. The University regrets the uncertainty that the marking boycott is causing."

Similar disruption is ensuing at universities across Scotland and indeed the UK. At the University of Glasgow, many students will be graduating with unclassified degrees, with no sign of when actual classifications will be received as the dispute behind the boycott shows no sign of reaching a resolution. Students at the University of Dundee are appealing dissertation marks after discovering they had been marked by academics who were not specialists in the area. 

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Marking and assessment boycotts have been in place at universities across the UK since 22 April, organised by the UCU as action short of a strike in a dispute over pay and working conditions in higher education

Earlier this month the Herald reported concerns that professionals such as teachers and medics could graduate without the proper checks and balances, with blanket awarding of pass marks leading to the devaluation of degrees. 

Five universities, including Cambridge, have so far publicly called on the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) to re-enter talks with unions to negotiate an end to the dispute and see the marking boycott end. Glasgow Caledonian University became the first Scottish university to add its name to the list today.