GRADUATION day remains a bit of a blur. It felt ceremonial rather than meaningful, and it was only after persuasion by others that I agreed to attend. Of the event itself, in the grandeur of the Younger Hall in St Andrews, I merely remember crossing the stage in kitten heels, being dunted on the head and handed a scroll. Much more enjoyable was the garden party that followed.

Given the confusion and distress faced by thousands of final year students in the UK this summer, I realise how much my generation took graduation for granted. It was easy to dither over whether to turn up when there was never any danger of not knowing your results.

These had arrived by post weeks earlier, and opening that envelope was far more nerve-wracking than the exams themselves. Today, by contrast, students who recently sat their finals don’t have a clue how they fared, while dissertations, over which they will have worked themselves into a lather, are languishing unread.

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It is a scandalous end to the university career of a cohort who have already endured unprecedented difficulties. One psychology student at Strathclyde University commented that: “Our degree from start to finish has been chaotic and isolating. At the end of our first year, we had strikes followed by two years of lockdown disruption. This is the first year I’ve actually got to know anyone on my course.”

The present state of disarray is the result of a marking boycott by members of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) who, after previous walk-outs, voted earlier this year for action short of striking. Not all UK university staff are members, but the numbers of students affected are nevertheless high: up to 2000 at Edinburgh University, for example. The union’s estimates over half a million will be impacted.

As a result, some will now receive nothing more than a provisional degree. Ollie Lewis, a disenchanted politics student at Edinburgh University, tweeted: “I’ll be walking across the graduation stage with an empty piece of paper. No result. If any VC [Vice Chancellor] or government minister ever tells you they care about students again, please politely tell them where to go.”

At this exceptionally fraught time, when many have had to badger universities for clarity over what is happening, management has run for cover. Strathclyde University says that it “regrets the uncertainty that the marking boycott is causing”, while Edinburgh University’s statement that “we share their [the students’] frustration at being caught in the crossfire of this national dispute” lays the blame unequivocally on the boycotters.

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On first glance, who could disagree? It is surely a gross dereliction of duty to leave final year students in such a state of uncertainty, especially as it could significantly impact on their future. How, you ask, could any academic be so heartless? After all, although an undergraduate’s performance throughout their honours years is important, exams and dissertations are where degrees are earned. They matter hugely, as does their fair and unbiased assessment.

In a hard-hitting essay in the latest edition of the London Review of Books, Edinburgh geography lecturer Fraser MacDonald describes the way the Exam Board normally functions. This year, he writes, Edinburgh and other institutions are allowing students to get a degree ‘on aggregate’ (based on work marked to date), which is a fall-back position previously used compassionately in ‘special circumstances’. Now, he writes, special circumstances “are being redefined, it seems, to apply to the university’s crisis rather than the student’s.”

I imagine many boycotting lecturers have had sleepless nights, knowing the impact of their action.

Yet when you look at the conditions in which academics country-wide are having to work, the blame for this predicament should be directed not at them but at university management and the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA), the body which awards pay rises. According to the UCU, a third of academic staff are on temporary contracts, and are paid by the hour. Since 2009, staff have been effectively taking a pay cut. Thus the recent offer of a new pay deal worth between 5 and 8 per cent has been roundly rejected.

Most shocking of all is that management seems not to be willing to engage in talks. Because the optics paint the lecturers as the culprits – who else’s fault is it that papers are going unmarked? – they can present themselves in solidarity with students, all the while nursing their considerable financial reserves. In the case of Edinburgh, writes MacDonald, these are estimated at around £2.5 billion. As an onlooker, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that well-off universities could afford to improve staff salaries and conditions, but choose not to.

Boycotters find themselves in a Gordian knot, since those most hurt by their stance are not university administrators, with whom they are at loggerheads, but the students they have nurtured for four years. How to settle this remains moot. Nothing has sparked a louder public response than their present revolt, yet if this does not lead to productive talks, where do they go next?

You can only hope that universities will recognise the damage such discontent is causing to their reputation, and sit down, with urgency, to defuse the situation. They should be aware that, thanks to this impasse, it has already become obvious that a university today is essentially a business, rather too keenly aware of profit and loss. It is a far cry from the ivory towers of old, whose function was almost exclusively cerebral.

Disillusionment with such institutions is deepening daily, even as demand to study at them rises exponentially. Whether the UCU members will achieve their aim remains unclear. What is not in doubt is the gravity of this crisis. Any university that fails to attempt to resolve the union’s grievances stands guilty of callousness and disregard for the very people on whom its status and future success depends.

One of the paradoxes of this unedifying debacle is that it’s the boycotters who are trying to protect the ideal of an institution that offers a first-class education, rather than becoming merely a rubber-stamping degree machine. As MacDonald writes, “on the picket lines we talk not only about pay and conditions but also about the social purpose of teaching and the value of research, process, rigour. We remember that we are the university.”