While the pandemic has made everyone re-evaluate the important things in life, one sector of society and the unique struggles continue to be overlooked.
University students have been snubbed by both government and the media throughout the pandemic, with no support in terms of either policy or financial relief.
Where students have been mentioned, it has been to blame them for the spread of the virus after they returned to their universities – which they did on government advice. Universities have a duty of care to us, their students, which they are neglecting by not implementing academic mitigation policies.
We want to graduate with degree classifications we deserve and can be proud of, without questioning “what if..?”.
Not good enough
The pandemic has caused sector-wide disruption. Teaching hours have been drastically reduced – leading to content being made-up for by increased independent learning and reading. Yet in many cases, this content remains on mark schemes and in exams.
Are we expected to successfully teach ourselves missed content to the same standard as experts? If so, why are we paying for a university education in the first place? An inferior learning experience will undeniably lead to impacted marks as we enter exams and assessments which still cover those topics. Independent learning not a like-for-like substitute for contact time (let alone face-to-face contact time) with experts in the field.
We are still being assessed on collaborative group projects or scientific-research projects when we can’t meet with our group and have no access to laboratories or equipment. Final year students face writing dissertations or research projects – in most cases the most heavily weighted piece of work – without access to the resources, equipment or staff that we would normally rely upon.
And students need to “un-learn” methods of assessment that we have been perfecting for the last two years in order to achieve under current assessments. All this on top of the anxiety that pervades the entire population given the concerning statistics in the news.
Necessary and appropriate
Despite the joint Russell Group statement that a no-detriment policy is not “necessary or appropriate this year”, York and Durham have signalled they will adopt protective academic policies, joining many other institutions who were not bound by that statement.
But countless others are rejecting them. Students understand that a no-detriment policy as we knew it last year is not possible because the algorithm relied on the average of grades achieved pre-Covid. Many universities argue that, as this whole academic year falls during the pandemic, there is no data to make an algorithm for a benchmark this year. But by stating that there is no viable data to use this year, are they not acknowledging that this academic year’s results have been impacted?
Sadly some universities look like they are prioritising their reputation over the welfare of their students. In November, I wrote an open letter to my university, endorsed with over 2000 signatures, asking for new mitigation policies to be developed.
The university refused, citing the need to preserve their reputation as their apparent main concern, and that extensions or deferrals constitute sufficient protection. These ignore issues around international students on time-limited visas and those holding conditional job or higher education offers.
They also cited significant financial investments (in sanitising study spaces and in IT systems) as a form of mitigation for circumstances this year.
Finally, they assured us that our final results will be checked against historical data to ensure we do not greatly differ from previous cohorts – a policy which is to be followed by several universities.
Has the 2020 A-level fiasco (resulting from similar scaling techniques) and the subsequent government U-turn been forgotten? In scaling cohorts, only anomalous results are picked up whereas a student who only drops a few marks may not be picked up because they remain within the expected graph. These few dropped marks throughout the year can mean the difference between degree classifications and cannot fairly be attributed to the student alone – there are so many outside factors affecting achievement this year.
Scaling happens annually to an extent, but the lack of attention to individual achievement by these algorithms is concerning. We are most like last year’s cohort, if any, and they did get a no-detriment policy, despite only weeks of the second term being affected. After 10 months of disrupted learning, we are not asking for the same policy but a new, equally as protective one.
Ignoring our concerns
The disregard for our unique position and the challenges we have faced after two separate academic years of disruption seems to be more commonly held than we would hope. That’s why I have co-founded the group Students for Academic Mitigation and launched a campaign for academic mitigation across UK universities – aiming to ensure that students enter the job and further education markets on an equal footing with each other. The petition currently stands at around 20k signatures.
Money poured into new technologies does not mitigate for staff and students alike having to adapt and learn how to use them, with no protection for students from the inevitable growing pains that the education sector has undergone this year. Likewise, ensuring study spaces – that we are now banned from – are safe and that IT systems can cope, are not replacements for mitigation policies. Many would argue that our fees pay for these developments which are necessary for an institution needing to adapt and to keep pace with competitors.
But tuition fees are not my main motivation for questioning the lack of academic support in place.
The student population represents a whole generation abandoned by government and their own institutions, the damage from which will be felt for years to come as thousands graduate with impacted education and degree classifications. Student demands are relatively modest – asking for the disruption of the pandemic to be taken into account when they are assessed.
The resistance from universities and no support from the governing bodies of higher education to acknowledge this is reprehensible.