Cambridge says "No" to marking exams

The University of Cambridge says final year students will see their graduation date postponed due to an ongoing marking boycott by staff.


6/30/20234 min read

The ongoing strike action initiated by the University and College Union (UCU), concerning pay and working conditions, is affecting 145 UK universities.

In recent years, universities have witnessed a growing trend of becoming significant hubs for activism and social change. While activism is most often associated with students on campus protesting both outside injustices and those committed by the university, instructors and staff are increasingly flipping the script. One such example of teachers speaking out for their rights is the marking boycott that is taking place at the University of Cambridge. This year’s boycott saw hundreds of lecturers and staff refuse to mark students' works as a means of protesting against inequities within the education system.

At the heart of the Cambridge marking boycott has been a demand for fair working conditions and better pay for staff. Lecturers, tutors, and graduate teaching assistants argued that their workload had increased significantly over the years, while their salaries and benefits remained stagnant. The boycott aimed to draw attention to these grievances and put pressure on the administration to address the concerns of its staff.

Figures published by UCU suggest that academic staff have experienced a real-terms pay reduction of 20% since 2009. Meanwhile, the salaries of vice chancellors lie around 278,000 pounds on average. This is in stark contrast to the salaries of academic staff, with entry-level academics earning a mere one-tenth of vice-chancellors’ salaries, representing a severe inequality in the higher education sector.

The University and Colleges Employers' Association (UCEA) is tasked with negotiating pay-related issues with higher education unions including UCU.

The unions have demanded a minimum pay rise of 12% and the phase out of the zero-hours or ‘on-call’ work, and temporary contracts.

The situation has deteriorated to the level where a dispute erupted between UCU and UCEA. This was one of the primary causes of the marking boycott which started back in April.

"I feel like something has been taken away from me, even though I have done nothing wrong"

- Taqif Aris, final year student at Durham University

The boycott caused significant disruption to the normal functioning of the University. With lecturers refusing to mark exams and coursework, the administration faced a logistical challenge in ensuring that students' works were assessed. This disruption sparked a heavy debate within the University and the wider academic community, bringing attention to the underlying issues that had led to the boycott in the first place.

However, it is worth noting that there has been some positive change regarding one of the underlying issues that led to the boycott. There has been a considerable improvement with regards to the Gender Pay Gap (GPG), another relevant topic of debates surrounding the pay of academic staff. The 2017 Interim Report claimed that the GPG had stood at 20%. At the time, the CUCU Equality & Diversity working group, the branch of the UCU that deals with matters of inequality at the University, criticised the leadership for lacking an internal strategy to remedy the issue. The University seems to have listened to this criticism since then, as the GPG was 8% in 2022 according to the University’s report.

What impact will it have on students?

The majority of the roughly 4500 graduating students in undergraduate programmes, and 90% of 1000 graduate students at Cambridge will see their graduations delayed, Anthony Freeling, acting vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge has said, a move whose consequences are ‘severe, and in some cases, immediate’.

Similarly, a ‘significant number’ of finalists will not receive their final degree results on time at Durham University according to their official statement.

Thaqif Aris is an international student in his final year studying history and politics. He is significantly influenced by the events, as his job offer is conditional on his final grades. Should he not receive them by autumn, his offer will potentially be withdrawn by the company.

‘I feel like something has been taken away from me, even though I've done nothing wrong,’ he adds.

Students who have been expected to graduate this year have been particularly hard hit throughout their higher education journey. This is the class whose GCSE’s were reformed in 2018, and A-levels cancelled due to the pandemic in 2020. Finally, after already having missed numerous classes because of strike action, now they are faced with the possibility that they might not graduate when they should.

As a whole, many believe that their degrees will be worth less as a result of the strikes. This will potentially lower their chances of landing a job in an already tight job market.

Even though the University of Cambridge promised that all assessments will be marked, should this summer’s re-ballot pass, the marking boycott will continue. In order for the University’s promise to be realised, the unions and the University must reach a deal that is acceptable for both sides. Until then, the ambiguity around graduation dates will linger on, and students will be left in limbo, waiting for answers and marks that they can just hope are coming.


BBC News. ‘Cambridge University Students “in Limbo” over Marking Row’. 15 June 2023, sec. Cambridgeshire.

BBC News. ‘University Marking Boycott: What Is the Impact on Students?’ 30 November 2021, sec. Family & Education.

Cambridge University Press & Assessment. ‘Gender Pay’. Accessed 21 June 2023.

‘Equality & Diversity – UCU’. Accessed 21 June 2023.

‘UCU - University Staff Pay Cut by 20%, New Figures Show’. Accessed 21 June 2023.