Professionalism and difficult decisions: the boycott of assessment

The below article was published on the LeedsUCU blog:

As we are about to embark on an indefinite period of Action Short of a Strike, involving a boycott of assessment, we need to ready ourselves for some unjust criticism that is parked and ready to be mobilised against us.

There will also be some reasonable and challenging questions, not least from our students, and we have an obligation to address these openly and professionally. But in this blog posting, we want to address the issue of such dignified professionalism, because one of the easiest and cheapest, unthinking assaults on our boycott will be the accusation that it conflicts with our professionalism. Let’s address that from the outset.

As Academic and Academic-Related staff, we are the ones who develop close professional relationships with our students. We introduce them to a scholarly community, we support them, we foster their development, we facilitate their learning and give them platforms to discover who they are as people, as intellectuals and as practitioners in a range of career trajectories, and to meet their highest ambitions and objectives. We often maintain close contact with many, become friends even. University management, for the most part, are not involved in this experience on a day-to-day basis. Theirs is a world of bottom-lines and streamlined procedures, in which students often factor as an income stream, a ‘customer base’, a set of performance metrics.

We don’t recall seeing any University managers on the streets of London protesting the introduction of some of the highest public HE fees in the world. But we were there, we protested, we were kettled, we argued the cause, we fought for generations of students we were yet to meet.

IMG_0747.JPGSo now, we have some difficult decisions to make. Some more difficult than others, as some assessment tasks will be much more recoverable than others. They will argue that to risk interruption to student progression is unprofessional. Let’s talk about professionalism and difficult decisions, but first, let’s remember the real order of things.

The University is ‘contracted’ to offer the student the education experience she or he is paying the university a high premium for. In order to deliver that experience, the institution employs us, and remunerates us for applying our labour. If they downgrade that remuneration, or deteriorate our conditions of employment, we have a legal and moral right to withdraw our labour, partially or wholly, in protest at that behaviour. That protest is a symptom of our professional regard for our work. That leaves still the contract between the University and the student – the student’s complaint is with the institution for causing those circumstances. Is it professional to cause a problem and unprofessional to protest it?

We often hear of how competent a senior manager is because she or he has demonstrated an ability to make ‘difficult decisions’. Making people redundant it such a ‘difficult decision’; failing to properly respond to bullying in order not to undermine your managers is such another ‘difficult decision’; inflating your expenses on your balance sheet in order to justify an economies exercise and lose hundreds of staff as a consequence is another such ‘difficult decision’; deciding to approve a radical package of pensions benefits changes that will impact on tens of thousands of families and doing so without any care to consult with or communicate that decision to those people is yet another ‘difficult decision’. We are told to admire the ability to steer an institution through such ‘difficult decisions’, that this is a sign of true professionalism. Such people should be hired, given bonuses, we should aspire to be more like them.

And yet, when it comes to our difficult decisions, decisions that will have far less damaging impact on individuals and families, we will be told that we are being unprofessional.

Hold steady, hold firm. You have the right to do this. It is right to do this. It is professional to care about your colleagues, about future colleagues, about the future of Higher Education and the people who will staff it and, ultimately, the students who will benefit from it. Your participation in the democratic, collectivist community that is your union is a symptom of your professionalism. We have the right to protect our futures and our families’ futures and this boycott is the only measure we have at our disposal that will have the impact needed to re-align our fortunes away from the damage that has been decided that we should tolerate. In doing so with dignity and with resolve, you are being utterly professional.


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