Portia Hart: Why I would fight the AUT to get my degree

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The Independent Online

I'm a university student in my final year, and should be in the library revising for my finals. Instead I'm at home not revising, for a final that has mysteriously ceased to exist. This is because my lecturers have been asked by their union, the AUT, to go on something known as "action short of a strike", meaning they're being asked not to write exams, mark coursework or talk to students about what they are and are not doing. Hmmm... Let's hope they don't actually ever go on strike.

Students here have known for a while that there is some dispute about lecturers' pay, which has meant we don't get essay marks back any more, but we imagined the powers that be would reach an agreement before our degrees were jeopardised. Then I found out that one of my finals had been cancelled and my degree was officially up in the air. We were told one of two things could happen. Either a possible reschedule for any time between now and August (the university agreed to give us just three days notice), or no exam at all, in which case final grades would be based on, well, on something that isn't an exam. Which I imagine would have been coursework, and you see the problem we have there.

Mine is one of only three exams to have been cancelled as yet, but it looks to be the tip of a very ugly iceberg. Across all departments university-wide, dissertations have not been marked and other crucial coursework goes ungraded, leaving thousands of students without enough marks to graduate. For those lucky enough to sit their finals, of course, there's no indication at present that anyone will actually take the time to correct them.

So I asked my tutors, lecturers and departmental administrators what was going on. Will this be sorted out in time for graduation? Same answer from all sides: "Sorry for any inconvenience, we're not in a position to give you any information, please continue as normal and check regularly for new information." It's like they're talking about a late train, only this isn't a late train. This is my life.

The university is officially handling this in two ways, one of which is apparent total denial. Last week there was an e-mail in my university account congratulating me on being so close to the culmination of my studies and would I like a commemorative photo to mark the occasion? The week before was an update of possible disruption to exams and the real likelihood that I may not graduate at all. Confused? When I asked friends, roughly half are sceptical as to whether we will graduate, with many holding off buying graduation ceremony tickets or booking places for visiting friends and family to stay, so strong is their doubt. But still the university has no concrete answers.

What I object to most is being used as a pawn by the AUT in their battle for higher pay. I'm sure their cause is noble and worthy - admittedly a 40 per cent pay-cut (as the AUT claims) doesn't sound good from whichever angle you look at it, but you can't gamble with people's futures to get what you want. The AUT demands job-security for its members, yet apparently holds no regard for the security that thousands of students will lose if they are unable to graduate. The mentality here seems to be, "I'll torture the little child until I get what I want". But noble as your cause may be, jeopardising the innocent for your own gain is not clean, it's not fair and it won't make you popular.

Ironically, just as I sat down to type this, I received a university communication informing me that all the stops have been pulled out, and my exam has miraculously been rescheduled for next week. Call me cynical, but I can't help but wonder if this is not solely the result of one angry parent terrorising the university for the last three days and ultimately threatening to go to the press. And while the university graciously allows me to sit my final, there is still no guarantee of it being marked.

This is a wage war that shouldn't even concern students, let alone adversely affect us. Perhaps, though, it is in the students' hands to end it. Show me a university that is able to cope financially with an entire year of would-be graduates demanding refunded tuition fees, compensation for lost earnings and wasted living costs over a period of three or four years. If the students make a big enough fuss, simple mathematics dictates that someone else will have to give. I'd rather it didn't come to that. I don't want to have to sue my university, I don't want to fight any unions, and I definitely don't want to fight the lecturers who have got me through the last four years. But I do want my degree, and I'll do whatever I have to to get it.

The writer is in the final year of a Japanese and linguistics degree at Edinburgh University

education@independent.co.uk

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