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Professor Karen O'Brien speaking during Select Committee hearing

Durham University Vice-Chancellor and Warden, Professor Karen O’Brien, gave evidence at the UK Parliament’s Education Select Committee on Tuesday 19 March 2024.

This was the final session of the Committee’s inquiry into the impact of the Marking and Assessment Boycott on university students.  

Professor O’Brien was invited to give evidence in the House of Commons in London. Also present were senior representatives from King’s College London and Queen’s University Belfast.  

The Higher Education Minister Robert Halfon MP also gave evidence to the Committee later in proceedings.  

The Education Committee, chaired by Robin Walker MP, has examined how students at universities in England and Northern Ireland have been impacted by industrial action in recent years, with particular focus on the Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) in 2023. 

In her remarks to the Committee, Professor O’Brien said:  

“An impact on one student is one too many. We were very concerned and very empathetic with our students as they went through this marking and assessment boycott.  

“We knew in advance that the marking and assessment boycott was likely to affect us quite significantly.

“Proactively, we looked very closely at our academic processes and also at the communications and support we could put in place for students, and we took a very active management approach.   

“On the academic side we were clearly mindful we had to maintain quality and standards of our degrees while maximising the certainty we could give our students about when they would get their degrees and their marks if they were continuing students.  

“We took a very proactive approach to student support.  We stood up a dedicated communications team and sent weekly emails explaining to students what they could expect, we had a website and we responded to individual student emails.  We worked with our student union who were supportive and very effective in communicating with students. 

“Durham is distinctive in having 17 colleges and we very much used our colleges and our college support systems to communicate with and support students. 

“We also established a task force with a named individual at its head who liaised individually with students. We invited all students to contact this person individually if they needed help with liaising with employers, if they were worried about their visas and if they were worried about going onto further study. Through that task force we individually helped 500 students both practically and financially.  

“We had already greatly augmented the counselling and mental health support that we provide to students as part of a big project underway, and we did provide a very significantly increased amount of one-to-one counselling during the period.

“We did the very best we could under very difficult circumstances.”

Professor O’Brien added: “We need to work well with our regulator of the sector (the Office for Students) and, clearly, we need to work well in terms of our industrial relations.  

“I think we would all accept there is a lot more we need to do as a sector in terms of our industrial relations, understanding the world we are in, the financial constraints we are under and the aspirations of our staff.” 

More about the Education Committee 

  • The Education Committee has examined how students at universities in England and Northern Ireland have been impacted by industrial action in recent years, with particular focus on the Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) in 2023.  
  • The Committee also assessed how universities have responded to industrial action and the MAB, including the mitigations put in place to reduce the impact on students. 
  • The inquiry has previously heard evidence from senior sector representatives, including Chloe Field, Vice President for Higher Education at NUS, Raj Jethwa, Chief Executive at Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) and Jo Grady, General secretary at University and College Union (UCU). 
  • Education Committee Chair, Robin Walker MP, has committed to using all evidence to look at whether a standardised method of mitigation could be used across the sector if needed in future. He said: “Our Committee will now investigate how any similar scenario in future could be better managed and disruption to students minimised.”  

Further details


Page last updated: Wednesday 29 May 2024