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Disclaimer: This article is written by Harry Sharma. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the team editor nor any entities they represent
Following the publication of an article in the student newspaper ‘The Tab’, discourse over the tutors strike at Edinburgh university has made national news, and though the strikes have negatively impacted the prospects of students, it is the response of universities which has caused the most chagrin. This article will analyse the causes of the strikes, what this means for the legal sector, and the potential ‘contract’ between university and student to mitigate future unrest.
Why are tutors going on strike?
Since 2018, university tutors have been intermittently striking over pay and working conditions, with some tutors arguing that they work over 20 hours of unpaid overtime in order to deliver the high-quality teaching and guidance for students to succeed. It is clear, therefore, that the role of a tutor far exceeds merely that of delivering lectures and seminars but requires deep involvement within their students’ academics and, in some cases, personal lives. It seems fair, then, that tutors would be reimbursed for the time and effort spent into individual students, would it not?
Nonetheless, at the University of Edinburgh, where news of the strikes hit mainstream media, tutors declared that they were being paid for only one hour of preparation time, and that their Guaranteed Hours did not include any time spent assisting students outside the classroom. Thus, frustrated with the lack of recognition received by the university leaders for their tireless efforts, the UCU (the union representing university educators) recommended a continuous nationwide boycott of marking final year dissertations. Still, response by students has been less directed towards the tutors and more towards the university for their poor handling of the situation; in fact, many students have joined their tutors on strike, in recognition of their assiduous efforts and attention to each student. The response of the university has been widely criticised as callous and unfair to students and staff alike.
How have universities responded?
Initially, the University of Edinburgh responded by introducing ‘temporary variations’ which would allow flexibility in marking, part of which included making students graduate without a marked dissertation, and forming grades based on an accumulation of students’ assessments throughout the year. For those who had spent almost nine months working on their dissertations, such a response was seen as callous, and a monumental waste of students’ money and time on a degree which may award them a pass grade simply due to the university prioritising its own profits over providing tutors with their well-deserved pay increase. In fact, during the strikes, the university saved an average of £64,000 per day from the strikes, showing how industrial action has been positively impacting the university’s finances even whilst tutor wages are stagnated. Further, the response by the university has cast doubt over those hoping to progress into their next year of education at the university, as their final exams and coursework have been all but relegated to unimportance. It seems that this response is insufficient for the immense hard work put in by students, appearing to neglect the duty of care and respect universities claim to have for students once they have enrolled.
More recently, the university announced that it would be delivering students with a provisional grade, similar to the response by the University of Newcastle, which offered a ‘no detriment’ policy to its students. This provisional change will then be subject to change, once students’ exams are finally marked. However, rather than being the finality students were hoping for from their four years of study, such a response is more akin to the university doubling down on their initial response, staying firm on the resolution that their pay to tutors is sufficient and reflective of the immense duress tutors have been placed under. Further, the university once more appears to be directing the controversy of the situation onto the tutors, rather than recognising their abuse of the overwhelming talent of their students. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the University of Edinburgh has fallen to the bottom of the Russell Group student satisfaction rankings. With no clear end to the strikes in sight, the prospects of its students and any future lawyers seem to be growing bleaker.
What is the Solution?
As with all labour disputes, there is no clear or easy path to negotiation; nonetheless, through taking a legal angle to the situation, perhaps a ‘contract’ between HE providers and students would be the most suitable way to mitigate future disruption. Although, as Kris Robbets points out in his article ‘The Higher Education Student Contract, contracts between universities and students were recommended, they have had well-established opposition, in part due to situations such as the 2023 tutor strikes – wherein universities would be forced to comply with the demands of striking tutors in order to provide students with a final grade. These contracts would be distinct from the usual ‘student contract’, as they would be between the student and the university administration, rather than between student and teaching staff. Though theoretical, such a contract would not only provide students with assurances of the university’s duty of care over them, perhaps improving mental and physical health provisions but would also include assurance that all students’ work would be marked to the appropriate standard with nothing inhibiting their final grade. Through creating a contract, students would be safe with the knowledge that they would receive a final grade appropriate of their ability, enabling them to enter into the graduate world uninhibited by the uncertainty currently facing university students. If students believe that the university’s response to a clause is unsuitable, the contract would provide them with room to begin litigation proceedings.
Moreover, a HE contract could also be of benefit to universities by including clauses on student behaviour and commitment to handing in assignments which could, in the long term, improve a university’s reputation as one with higher academic rigour and students of a disciplined disposition. Student satisfaction could also be much higher, since there would be an acknowledgement of the rights of students and the university’s commitments to them.
How have the strikes affected the legal world?
Though not being directly linked, the failure of universities to adequately mark student dissertations means that student research has gone unpublished. This is research which could help advise and direct the work of practicing solicitors. Further, many talented, aspiring lawyers could struggle to find graduate jobs upon leaving university, or even enrolling in a GDL or LPC course, as they would not have the final grade required to access such programs. Thus, the legal world could potentially be losing some of its most promising young lawyers.
The dissertation scandal at the University of Edinburgh and others around the country has not only left students angry and dismayed at their universities, but undermined the reputation of British universities as ones which provide a high level of care and attention to each and every single student. The seeming fixation of universities on maintaining profits, rather than recognising the immense talent of their tutors, also demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the function of education: to instil academics and also morals and ethics. A university which intentionally abuses the talents of its staff does not adhere to this function. Thus, through using a contract, the issues of students not receiving their marks, and tutors being paid as according to their talent, could perhaps be resolved. Nonetheless, until universities recognise the reasonable expectations of their tutors and students, the end does not seem clear.