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    Department choices show unequal application of safety net policy

    It has been revealed that departments have implemented the University’s ‘Safety Net’ policy with significantly varying approaches.

    The policy, released on the University’s website on 20 April, provided a framework in which individual departments could apply their own safety net.

    Departments have chosen individual policies within the wider safety net based on their examination structure, particularly whether assessments have been ‘banked’ (submitted) before March 14. Those with 50% banked have the ‘no detriment’ policy applied. 

    Policies which will apply across all subjects include:

    • Determining performance on a case by case basis, and taking into account individual mitigating circumstances.
    • Aligning grade distribution with averages from previous years such that the number of Firsts and 2.iis will not go down, and the number of fails will not go up. 

    Other policies have been less evenly applied by departments. 

    Policies surrounding grade classification include: 

    • Reducing, or eliminating preponderance (number of papers scoring 70 or higher needed to achieve a first). 
    • Changing specific marks required to achieve a certain grade or achieve a pass. 

    Policies surrounding exams and marking include:

    • Reducing the number of papers. 
    • Scaling papers where there is a systematic lower average performance. 

    Policies surrounding coursework and ‘banked’ assessments include: 

    • Using ‘banked’ papers to identify lower performance. 
    • Preventing students from attaining scores lower than their banked assessments, conditional on 50% of work already being banked.

    Classics has limited their safety net just to proportional grade distribution and identifying papers “whose mark-runs are significantly out of line with the recent average”. They will have eight exams all contributing to the final mark. Candidates taking a second classical language will have to take these papers under closed book conditions. 

    History and English are among the subjects relying on ‘banked’ assessments in their implementation of the safety net. English reduced their exams from 4 to 2, and increased the value of banked assessments to 60%, however will not be implementing the ‘no detriment policy’, as banked assessments had originally accounted for 43% of the final grade, below the 50% required. 

    Laura Ashe, the Chair of English FHS stated: “In English we’ve halved the number of exams (and hence exam essays) required, to make the remote examinations manageable, and we’ve reduced their weighting in the overall marks profile, from 57% to 40%. On top of that we can undertake further ‘scaling’ of runs of marks if they turn out to be significantly out of line with normal expectations. Our intention is to make sure that we are giving grades within the normal expected range for proportions of firsts, 2.1s, etc. 

    “Beyond all that work across the board, we’re also of course going to look carefully at every candidate’s individual self-assessment, and all Mitigating Circumstances statements, and the Board will have discretion to make small adjustments to candidates’ marks and classes in response to these. Beyond that, where candidates’ performance in the remote exams has been seriously impacted by their circumstances, and their marks greatly and disproportionately affected, we can use the mathematical ‘safety net’ mechanism to directly adjust their marks.

    “One substantial minority of students who have been contacting me with concerns, actually, is those who historically do better in exams than in coursework: these students have been very concerned about the push to give coursework vastly more weight in final profiles, and I have been concerned to reassure them that in cases where students’ performance is weighted the other way, the Exam Board will equally have discretion to respond to that.

    “Overall, we’re very confident that we can give a fair result that retains the credibility of the classification while attending carefully to all individual circumstances.”

    Similarly, History finalists would traditionally take four papers which would make up four-sevenths of their final degree classification, with the remaining three-sevenths made up from coursework. In response to the coronavirus one paper has now been cancelled, meaning that the Trinity examinations will now make up 50% of their degree classification. Despite this, the History faculty has announced that it will not follow the University’s ‘no-detriment’ policy since Trinity examinations would normally make up a larger percentage of students’ degree.

    PPE and Economics and Management will both discount the lowest scoring two papers – these will not count in the average mark. For a First in PPE, preponderance has been eliminated and only the average will apply. For a First in E&M, preponderance will be reduced from two papers scoring over 70 to one. The Economics Department chose not to comment. 

    MML has reduced the total number of papers from ten to six, one of which is banked. Oriental Studies have not released a specific policy, but stated that the faculty would “follow the safety-net policy developed by the University.”

    Law has not cancelled exams as their Core papers are required for a qualifying law degree, but have adjusted some grade specifications. For a First: four marks of 70+ and nothing below 55 in Core or 50 in Options and/or Jurisprudence OR five 70+ and nothing below 45 in core with no more than two marks below 60 and nothing below 40 in Options and/or Jurisprudence. 

    For a pass: five marks of 40, no more than three marks below 35. For Law Moderations, a Distinction requires two marks of 70 and above, with a third mark of 60 and above for Criminal or Constitutional Law or 55 for Roman Law. 

    Experimental psychology will have the no detriment policy apply, its finalists having completed over 55% of their degree. PPL will discount the lowest scoring paper, or treat each banked assessment as two units, whatever is higher. The Head of Department, Professor Kia Nobre stated: “We are working hard at applying/adapting the University safety-net guidance in the context of the particular requirements of our degree to ensure a no-detriment policy and to support our students as best we can.”

    Music has reduced the number of papers from eight to five or six, dependent on papers and have given a ‘variety of options’ for performance assessments including Solo Performance, which would usually be held in Trinity. 

    Alongside the exam arrangements, the University has developed the ‘Safety Net’ policy after an extensive SU consultation of students, results from which showed that students viewed ‘open-book’ exams negatively.

    Over 1600 finalists signed an open letter asking for predicted grades as a ‘guaranteed minimum’. Speaking to Cherwell, Ferdinand Otter-Sharp, the author of the open letter, stated: “The main issue with the University’s ‘safety net policy’ is that it isn’t a safety net policy.  

    “For the large majority of students, it is a marginal reduction in pressure which should have already been policy to reflect the general effects of the pandemic on students. At best, the University has failed to understand the problems of its students most disadvantaged by home study during a pandemic, and at worst the University has shown a complete apathy towards them. 

    “Oxford’s priority should have been protecting its most vulnerable students at all costs, not protecting the rigour of Oxford degrees.”

    Cambridge announced their safety net policy on the 31 March. According to Varsity, “as long as they pass their assessments, their result will “only confirm the class awarded in their second year or improve it”. This will not apply for students taking a fourth-year integrated Master’s.”

    When contacted for comment, the University stated: “The Safety Net policy aims to reduce the risk of students being disadvantaged by coronavirus, or circumstances surrounding the outbreak that are beyond their control.

    “Given the diversity of Oxford assessment regimes, it’s been necessary to give subjects local autonomy to provide a solution that works for the specific conditions related to their courses.

    “In instances where no formal assessments have yet been completed we have encouraged subjects to put in place a variety of measures to support students to achieve the outcomes they deserve.

    “As we continue to respond to the developing pandemic situation our priority remains ensuring the University functions as smoothly as possible and that the vast majority of students can finish the academic year to their highest ability, and be proud of their achievements regardless of the circumstances.”

    Departments were contacted for comment. 

    Image: Ellie Wilkins

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