Bristol University offers students £18.85 to mark first and second year exams

‘It’s pedagogically and ethically questionable’

Bristol University has resorted to asking fellow students to mark first and second year assessments as the ongoing marking and assessment boycott shows no sign of reaching a resolution.

PhD students – regardless of whether they have any previous experience or training – have been approached by university administration in one school to help clear the backlog.

If these students are not trained before undertaking marking, it not only breaches guidance set out by the university itself, but more seriously, Bristol University could be breaking guidelines set by the Office for Students.

The Bristol Tab has seen evidence in one school of approximately 130 postgraduate research students being emailed asking if they are “available for marking”.

They have been offered £18.85 to mark one exam per hour, what the school described as the “standard” Teaching Support Rate.

However this pay is actually almost double what some postgraduate students in the school are currently paid, as their contract allocates one hour to mark two assessments for almost the same wage.

One PhD student described Bristol University’s action as “pedagogically and ethically questionable”.

“The university is exploiting the financial struggle of PhD students in a bid to use them as a reserve army against the marking boycott,” they said.

“Considering the cost of living crisis, some will be financially forced to take on this additional marking. It has created conflict and division and shows a disregard for the mental health of PhD students as well as the quality of marking.”

They explained when they begun marking as a PhD student, they undertook an online course as well as having numerous meetings with the unit convenors so they could understand what the unit convenors wanted students to demonstrate in their exams for that unit.

Bristol’s decision to contact postgraduate students means first and second years may have their work marked by someone who has little experience or knowledge of the topic area, raising questions about the quality of the marking.

The PhD student explained: “If you don’t know the unit, you won’t know all the materials, how can you mark the essay?

“You don’t know what guidelines were provided, with different units we ask for different things in the assessment. I cannot understand how postgraduate students can be offered any essays from any units and start marking them without a discussion with the unit convenor. It’s not fair on students.”

A spokesperson for Bristol University said it always uses “markers who are experienced in the discipline they are marking”, adding the university has full confidence in the “quality of assessment practices”.

Bristol’s own guidelines state PhD students “must receive appropriate training” before they can mark assessments. The guidance references both a “discipline-specific induction” and a three-day course provided by the Bristol Institute for Learning.

The university previously ran a three-day course earlier this year in January. The blended course involved tasks that could be taken online as well as in-person training.

However, when PhD students were approached last Thursday, they were told the deadline to return marked scripts was in just over two weeks’ time (26th June), raising fears there may not be enough time to adequately train students.

The Bristol Tab understands that there were no more than five postgraduates in the school qualified to mark prior to the email being sent to all postgraduates last week.

As a member of the Office for Students (OfS), which acts as the regulatory body for higher education in England, Bristol must meet the requirements it sets out.

The OfS says that “relevant awards granted to students” must be “credible at the point of being granted and when compared to those granted previously”.

A senior lecturer at Bristol University believes the university is now breaching those guidelines by attempting to use “untrained, inexperienced PhD students to mark materials about unit content with which they are unfamiliar”.

Bristol UCU has previously accused the university of violating OfS guidance. The union argued the temporary regulations which disregards work which isn’t marked means the integrity of degrees this year will differ, with some students being issued their degree with much “fuller evidence than others”.

“This inconsistency will necessarily devalue University of Bristol degrees, because, for example, employers will have no way of determining the basis on which a given 2023 2.1 degree was awarded.”

The senior lecturer urged students to direct their anger towards submitting a notification to the Office for Students.

“The only thing left now in terms of shaking the sector is student voice, that’s it,” they said. “Staff voice doesn’t matter, staff action in terms of what we thought was the strongest possible action doesn’t matter, it’s students’ voices.”

They added: “Leaving students to stew like this for weeks and weeks, it’s testament to the sector as a whole. You come in, you pay your money, you do your degree and you leave.

“Everything that we work on and so much of what we are supposed to do, is about building a university community and a scholarly community and we use these words in our planning all the time.

“University is meant to be a place for staff and students where we’re working on growing our intellectual endeavour, we are building ourselves into better versions of ourselves together and this just cuts right through that.

“It tears it down, it cheapens what a degree is. But more than that, it cheapens what a scholarly degree is because if you think about the divisiveness of this tactic of bringing in PhD students and pitting them against each other – I think that’s disgusting.

“If they want us to feel like we work in a factory and we are all just cogs in a factory, the staff and the students, then they’re right, that’s how we are being made to feel.”

Students who equally feel Bristol isn’t meeting the OfS’s requirements can submit a notification to the regulator here.

A spokesperson for University of Bristol said: “We are fully confident in the quality of our assessment practices, our quality assurance processes, and the integrity of our assessment outcomes and we always use markers who are experienced in the discipline they are marking.”

Related stories recommended by this writer:

Bristol Uni staff marking dissertations at almost twice the usual speed, claim lecturers

Bristol University students will graduate even if their diss goes unmarked

•  UCU warns Bristol Uni won’t be able to find enough staff to mark summer exams