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Is the pandemic still an extenuating circumstance?

The spring saw a suite of measures implemented at pace to take account of the impact of the pandemic on students. Jim Dickinson asks if they should continue or be scrapped.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Now that the teaching term on taught programmes has settled down and everyone’s strapped into a smooth running “new normal” mode of delivery (!), thoughts on taught programmes naturally turn to assessment.

You will recall the drama of late March when a wave of student comparison activism swept the country to demand so-called “no detriment” policies – usually designed as a kind of grading “safety net” to ensure students obtained at least their average grade so far. Most were also accompanied by relaxations to extenuating/mitigating circumstances policies – partly to cope with volume, and partly to demonstrate empathy with difficulties.

Somn acted quickly, some took a while. Some were able to implement across their programmes but came a cropper with some PSRBs or PGTs or other programs with late (in the year) assessment loads. Some – already under the OfS kosh on grade inflation – took a while to work out whether to risk it. Some tried to brand “no detriment” as “more support” and discovered that students aren’t that daft.

But almost every provider ended up with some package of measures that eventually assuaged the formal or informal student activism that was there.

Join a camp

So what happens this year was always going to be interesting. Right now, I’d divide the sector into three camps:

1. There are providers who officially take the view that the changes made in the spring were exceptional, temporary and designed to take account of a particular set of unforeseen circumstances. Students have had time to prepare now, so all the changes have been reset.

(Ironically some of those providers are also attempting to simultaneously argue that the pandemic is ongoing and still impacting their availability to deliver the course as advertised, so are deploying their “force majeure” clauses to bat off complaints.)

2. Then there are providers who have retained some of the things they changed – things like relaxations to mitigating circumstances policies – because the pandemic’s impact is ongoing. In doing so they’re partly reflecting some of the issues raised in OIA’s review of these types of policies and partly demonstrating more “trust” in students (ie through things like self-certification) than they previously felt able to.

3. And then there are providers that are thinking about it.

Wait and see

You might also recall from March and April that both OfS and QAA guidance in this space came perilously late, acting more as a “Now! Album”/”Pat on the back” than a primer on what to do. Nevertheless the “wait and see for now” approach sounds wise right now for a few reasons.

First for those of us in England in Wales, with both the informal and formal stages of OIA’s review now complete, we ought to be expecting a new section of its “Good Practice Framework” soon. Not only is this set to cover a range of fascinating issues like judgement consistency across an institution and the validity of “fit to sit” policies if a student was incapable of making the judgement at the time, it would also be weird for OIA to issue it without doing some addendum framing around the pandemic.

Next for those of us in England, OfS has cryptically announced some work in this area:

In light of the disruption some students have experienced at the start of this academic year, we will be discussing with representative bodies the potential impact of changes in teaching and learning on students’ preparedness for assessment during, and at the end of, this academic year. We want to make sure that the necessary steps are taken to ensure that assessment will lead to reliable qualifications for all students this year.

If ever there was a paragraph containing both ends of the “reliable qualification” and “don’t be mean to students” see saw, it’s that one.

Ultimately for everyone in the UK – and you’d assume for both OfS and OIA (although don’t put too big a bet on), QAA would be where advice on this ultimately emanates from – and much of its late April advice probably stands the test of time. It emphasised:

  • Consulting properly with students and their representative bodies (as opposed to just having a student rep on a committee);
  • Clear communication to the whole student body – even if decisions haven’t yet been reached;
  • Taking care to ensure that this year’s cohort is neither unfairly advantaged nor disadvantaged in terms of the reliability of their degree classifications;
  • Balancing mitigations that reasonably apply to all students (have any of us not been affected by the pandemic?!) with ones that recognise a more significant impact, for example, those who become ill, who have particular caring responsibilities or whose specific learning plans have been disrupted.

Clearly, if students were struggling to study on their phone because they didn’t have broadband or a laptop wherever they were last year, writing a 1,500 word essay is probably still very difficult this year.

Sumsing up

SUMS consulting has just published one of its helpful briefing papers on the extenuating circumstances aspects of all this.

It notes that in the Spring many universities relaxed evidence requirements for exceptional circumstances recognising the difficulty in obtaining the documentation. Requesting letters of support from student wellbeing services ties up capacity, and obtaining letters of support from GPs may be tricky for the foreseeable future. It says that many universities are now reflecting more widely on the evidence required by students and removing the more onerous elements, for example the need to produce death certificates.

It also notes that universities have been reviewing examples of circumstances likely to be accepted and those which are likely to be excluded – in the past, for example, IT failure was likely to be in the “excluded” category, but an increased focus on online learning and a recognition that some students have limited IT resources is likely to impact this categorisation.

It also looks at moves towards greater self-certification and the case study from UWE on capped marks that we covered on the site a whole ago.

New for 2021

As well as all that, there’s a couple of new things to think about. New for this year is that back in the Spring most programmes had pretty much already been “taught” when lockdown struck, but now arguably programmes will need to take into account whether both the formal teaching and the wider access to facilities and support has sufficiently set a student up to achieve the learning outcomes.

It’s generally considered unfair to shift expectations down in this scenario – the learning outcomes are the learning outcomes – but recognising that the outputs leading to those outcomes have been chaotic and in some cases missing or heavily restricted feels important this year.

Separately, anecdotal reports suggest that when providers had to adapt assessment, there were problems. Highly practical assessment suddenly done online might technically have satisfied the relevant emergency committee, but may have left a bad taste in the mouth for students who perceived that aspect to be emotionally and practically “summative” as well as technically so in the regs. Better solutions for many STEM and creative arts courses are going to need to be found this year.

And where providers moved assessment components – usually exams – to the cloud, there are anecdotal tales of both huge disquiet about the privacy invasions involved in some of the solutions, and (in some cases well grounded) fears about collusion. With a longer run up concerns on both end of this see-saw ought to be resolvable in conjunction with student representatives.

There’s a couple of really important considerations in here too. First a reminder that how a course is assessed is judged by the Competition and Markets Authority to be part of the “material information” about a course that a student may have made a decision to come to you based on. Varying in an emergency in April was one thing – in theory varying now requires individual consent to change the terms.

Secondly PSRBs still lay down detailed curricula and assessment protocols. In the Spring many courses and providers hit difficulties when PSRBs failed to be as flexible as others when insisting (for example) on a three-hour exam or X hours of “professional practice” in order to qualify as a professional.

Again, if there’s a risk that the PSRB won’t agree to the changes you are going to make – and you know you’re going to have to make them – that could generate a major headache, not least because you run the risk of falling foul of consumer law if you deliver, or even the Consumer Protection (Amendment) Regulations 2014 that give (student) consumers remedies like price reductions and consequential losses if you display a trust mark, quality mark or equivalent without having obtained the necessary authorisation.

One response to “Is the pandemic still an extenuating circumstance?

  1. 1) some of the remedies won’t work a second time, as they assume a state of normalcy for this year, to counteract (e.g. as a benchmark or reference point) last year’s exceptions
    2) there’s a line to be walked on reasonable minor changes that don’t deviate from the assessment structure promised to students (where you should – in terms of regulatory advice to date – consult with and inform students) and more substantive changes (where you need consent). The answer in both cases is clearly: talk to students
    3) as with everything else in 2020, institutions are going to be guessing what they’ll need for assessments in 2021, because exactly where will be in 6-9 months time is unpredictable
    4) OfS will definitely kick off with the sector because of an (likely) overall increase in 1sts and 2:1s due to institutions prioritising student support and the student interest over absolute norm-referencing (and the A-level debacle proved why you don’t do the latter). The fact that pretty much everyone will see less than the 12% grade inflation seen in A-levels (as the DfE managed to simultaneously not support A-level students, oversee a large increase in top grades awarded, antagonise everyone inthe process, and then shift blame to universities) is, I presume, unlikely to excuse the sector.

    I suspect everyone is thinking about this, regardless of whetehr they have already taken action or released initial statement suggesting that this year is normal. There will be a need to act early (so: soon), and get the balance right between being specific enough to be reassuring, while leaving flexibility to deal with further situations as they arise (as the HEI kicking over grade inflation isn’t formally due until January/February, for example). That will come with a pressure to reduce 1sts and 2:1s, which will need balancing with a desire to continue to support students (taking account of both the general circumstances of Covid-19, differential impacts on different student groups, and the specific circumstances of individual students).

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