So as people have probably seen by now, the UK is stuck in a marking boycott, which has started to directly affect myself as a final year student.

I have not personally been affected too much yet, but have had one module's continuous assessment removed with no suggestion of replacement. There are no current plans regarding the future of the boycott by either the teachers or the administration, and it is unclear what the ultimate result and outcome will be at this time, which is very concerning for me.

I want to express my disapproval regarding the implementation of the strike as it puts students in a difficult and non-productive situation. For example, students have been told "Examination of dissertations and theses at postgraduate level, as well as vivas, are included in the action." I don't want to damage the relationships I have with my lecturers as I plan on staying in academia, but seeing these actions is making me question my desire to stay in academia.

So what is the most effective way to complain about this?

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    There is not likely to be an effective way to complain at this point. Once the vote has happened, and the decision is made, the union knows that the situation is bad for students - that is, in fact, the explicit goal of a work action like this. The best time to complain would have been before the vote was taken, when the union members were weighing the decision about whether the costs to students were acceptable. However, in the end the university will need to do something to handle current students. It may be uncomfortable, but you'll have to wait and see the outcome. Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 13:30
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    @OswaldVeblen I disagree. If the goal was to hurt students, the union would have gone with a teaching boycott since making up missed teaching is almost impossible and would really hurt students, while a delay in getting grades is generally not a huge issue.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 16:17
  • 4
    @user2813274 I doubt it. The union is advising its members that if work is marked that the university can compel you to release those marks. There advice to those who wish to participate in the boycott is to not mark the work.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 16:59
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    It's safe to assume that nobody likes the situation.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 17:04
  • 3
    Although you express a valid opinion, remember what the point of industrial action is. It is to apply sufficient pressure on the employer (in this case the government) to get them to change their stance on some matter. What other tools do people have in the end other than to withdraw their labor?
    – Simd
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 10:02

5 Answers 5


What is the most effective way to complain about this?

Individually (if you're the only one), there is no effective way to complain about this. Collective action has power by many individuals acting together.

Understand that nobody wants job action. Job action, such as a marking boycott, occurs because union members consider the final offer from the employer unacceptable. Maybe they're right! (But maybe not).

There are two ways for this situation to end:

  • The employer increases their offer sufficiently for the union members to accept.
  • The union, either voluntarily or involuntarily, retreats, accepts the offer previously considered unacceptable, concedes defeat, and members get back to ordinary work.

Before you blame the union or their members, study the background in detail and learn why they are choosing for job action. Maybe you will end up supporting their job action, and instead express your disapproval to the employer unwilling to meet reasonable demands. Maybe not. The student union may either support the employer or support the teacher's union. Or they may be so divided that they decide not to explicitly support either.

Note that this goes beyond academia, and applies equally well to, say, the ongoing German railway strikes, or any other strike that affects a third party.

Edit 22 February 2018: Today a national university strike started in the United Kingdom. Lecturers and other university staff are on strike. If this industrial action continues for long, student exams will be under threat. According to a YouGov poll, 66% of students at striking universities support the strike. 50% blame the conflict on the universities, and just 2% blame it on the union. So this is a clear example where students overwhelmingly side with academics against the universities. See UCU news item for details.

  • 3
    My university student union is backing the university. Do you have data that suggests most SUs are backing the UCU?
    – StrongBad
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 17:31
  • @StrongBad No. I have no data (but it would be interesting to see if there are any). I suppose it depends on the situation. I have rephrased the answer to avoid the implication that the student union would automatically declare solidarity with the teachers union.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 17:56
  • @StrongBad Edited to update with information on the latest strike.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 13:07
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    @Gage I mean that as an individual, that will not have much effect, but as a collective, it might. If a thousand people individually do something, it's no longer individual ;-)
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 18:00
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    @Gage I see what you mean. I have rephrased the sentence to clarify what I mean by individually.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 22:21

Before you can understand how to express your disapproval, you need to understand a little bit about how the UCU (the Union organizing the strike) and universities work.

I have not personally been affected too much yet, but have had one module's continuous assessment removed with no suggestion of replacement.

It is not the responsibility of those on strike to come up with the alternative. It is the responsibility of the University who is collecting your fees to deliver what it has promised.

The union in question have poorly planned this boycott and there are currently no plans to remove it. We have had no communication about who is striking and what their alternative plans are if this continues and I am very concerned about this.

The marking boycott has been in the works for months now. The universities and union initially had extended discussions, but were not able to reach a resolution. The union then suggested if an agreement could not be reached, that they would recommend a marking boycott. After additional talks failed to reach a resolution, the union brought asked its members to vote on a marking boycott. After the marking boycott was approved by the union members, a final round of discussions were held. After those discussions failed to reach a resolution the marking boycott was initiated. The union is not allowed to contact students. It is the university's responsibility to contact students and tell them what is happening and what the alternative plans are. Issues about lack of communication and alternative plans should be addressed to the University.

I want to express my disapproval with their methods as I disagree entirely with the boycott as I believe using students as pawns is never acceptable. For example they have been told "Examination of dissertations and theses at postgraduate level, as well as vivas, are included in the action." which is much too far. I don't want to damage the relationships I have with my lecturers as I plan on staying in academia, but seeing these actions is making me question my desire to stay in academia.

This is something that should be directed at the union. The union chose what they are boycotting. The union could have used a research boycott, a recruiting boycott, or a teaching boycott, but the union chose to focus on current students.

Your student union may be able to help you voice your concerns to both the university and the union. It is possible that your student union is backing either the union or university and will not pass on criticism to either. If you want to contact someone directly, the UCU is suggesting students contact the vice chancellor's office at their university. To contact the UCU you could use anyone on the UCU contacts page.

  • 1
    When it comes to course content, it is their responsibility to find an alternative, as feedback is necessary for progress and teaching sometimes needs to be altered based on what a class is having difficulties with, so teaching will be affected by this, not just marking. The turnout for the vote was only 45% so how is this representative of the union members. Some staff will be forced into this when they didn't even want it. As students we have no affiliation with UCU, but surely it doesn't take a student to stand up and say that their protest is morally wrong?
    – lumostar
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 13:38
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    @lumostar you are correct that a marking boycott will have additional affects beyond marking. The union is NOT forcing its members to participate in the boycott. I would prefer to avoid the political nature of moral judgements, but one can make arguments that the "demands" by both the UCU and universities are unreasonable.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 14:26
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    @lumostar - aside from the fact that no-one is being forced into it, what makes you think that if the turnout had been higher, the result would have been different? Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 16:30
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    When I first saw your paragraph that said "student union," I thought, "Now there's an idea: the teachers go on a marking boycott and the students could go on a payment and study boycott!" :P (Needless to say, I was seriously lacking context for a moment; that was quickly resolved.)
    – apnorton
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 23:13

I think it's a given that everyone at the university is well aware that the students aren't happy about the implications of the boycott. Be aware that your student union may actually officially support the academic staff (example) and be calling for solidarity.

This isn't the place to discuss the politics, of course, but your best method of protest will be more wide-reaching. Personally complaining to your lecturers will be ineffectual at best. For example, I'd suggest writing an article in your student magazine, and organizing or joining a peaceful, public protest against the boycott.

  • 7
    Or you could express your disapproval by joining a protest for the boycott and complain to university administrators so that the boycott ends sooner.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 17:29
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    @StrongBad Yes, I might agree - ergo at least some of the student unions are asking students to stand by the staff. But that goes completely against the grain of the question.
    – Moriarty
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 17:54
  • I agree. The traditional answer is to organize an anti-boycott protest. It is reasonably common in general for there to be marches and counter marches on most hot political topics.
    – Simd
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 9:40
  • 1
    The fact that some student union supports somebody shouldn't stop individuals from stating their opinion.
    – yo'
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 14:38

Keep your head low. You were dealt a bad hand. You can't win, only minimize your losses.

If it's otherwise wasted time, consider traveling through Europe for a semester. Since a troll seems to have outed you as a comp sci major, go to Berlin and check out the start up scene there.

  • 1
    I don't understand why this is controversial. How will expressing disapproval improve his/her situation? No one in their right mind can believe the OP's disapproval will stop the boycott. Yet anyone who has worked in academia knows that there are quite a few vindictive characters in it. The OP didn't ask if he/she should support the boycott (whose goals are arguably laudable), but how to express disapproval without potentially getting burned. The OP can't, hence: keep your head low.
    – user7323
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 1:31

Consider writing a public letter/article on the topic

I agree with the suggestion in the other answers that you should look more deeply into the matter. In particular, your view should consider the underlying dispute over employment conditions and you should form a judgment over that matter as part of your overall take on the boycott. This might change your mind on the issue, or it might not, but at the very least it will give you proper context and a holitic understanding of the matter.

Now, assuming that you maintain your view that the boycott is a bad idea, I see no reason why you couldn't express that view and still maintain good relations with academics in your university. Academia is a place where it ought to be possible to disagree over a subject and put forward arguments and positions in good faith. Academics sometimes disagree over political matters ---many of which are far more consequential than a workplace boycott--- and they are used to the fact that university is a place where they will encounter views they disagree with.

In terms of "how to complain", if you have thought out your position well, and if you are sufficiently logical and articulate in your reasoning, have you thought about writing a letter/article for a newspaper, blog, etc.? You might have the ability to put forward a useful perspective on the boycott from a class of people who are negatively affected by it, and you might be able to share some useful information that would add to the conversation on the topic. This will require you to have a fully developed understanding of the context, but if you frame your views clearly and sensibly then they might be convincing. You are pursuing a postgraduate education, so use that inchoate education to add value to the public conversation on the matter.

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