The odd situation of assessment

It’s May 2023 here in the UK, which means we are having so many public holidays that it feels like Belgium.

As a distraction from celebrating the arrival of someone else that we didn’t select into the position of Head of State, academics have been more focused on the latest stage of strike action by the main union, the UCU.

Right now, that means a Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB). This means not returning marks/grades to the university, which in turn means there are gaps in calculating degree classifications for completing students.

Rather than get into the mechanics of all this, I’ll instead focus on the new approach that employers have taken to this.

In the past, there would be a relatively small deduction of pay for participating in a MAB: 10-20% was the typical range, reflecting the amount of time that might be involved, plus a bit for the disruption it caused.

This time around, employers seem to be going for a rather different model:

As numerous people point out, pretty much every university now uses a workload model of some kind, plus trackers of actual time use, and so knows very well that marking never takes anything like the percentages listed above.

Punitive penalties seek to dissuade strike action, obviously, and it carries many disturbing implications that need addressing now, as Sylvia sets out:

On a more narrowly pedagogical point, it also highlights the rather messed-up view that the whole sector has about assessment.

In past MABs, employers have typically used pre-existing assessment results (from coursework) to fill in the gaps in final assessments, in order to generate an overall mark. Which hardly feels right, when we all spend so much time talking/writing about how important assessment is to the learning process.

If it’s important enough to deduct huge piles of pay, then surely it’s important enough to put in place an equivalently robust system to cover assessment?

All in all, it’s another indictment of marketisation and commercial logics: as long as we get a number at the end, that’s good enough for everyone involved.

Which isn’t really the best message to be putting out there, long term.