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Russell Group’s student newspapers call for safety net

Editors from student newspapers across the Russell Group universities have united in calling for a safety net for this year's examinations, Daisy Aitchison reports.

For the first time ever a joint editorial has been published in the student newspapers of the Russell Group universities, calling for the implementation of a “no detriment or safety net policy” in examinations this year.

The editorial, which featured in Cherwell, urges the Russell Group institutions to put in place measures similar to those of the University of York. Their students have been given certain guarantees to try and minimise the impact of the pandemic on the final degree graduates leave with.

Editors from across the different universities have pointed out that “we are living through what are undeniably unprecedented times” and that the policy towards exams “does not match the reality of what many students have faced, and are continuing to face, this year”.

As part of this disruption the move to remote teaching during the pandemic is cited, along with the fact that “students have repeatedly said they have not been adequately supported throughout this pandemic” by their universities despite the “hard work of teaching staff”. 

Another of the concerns raised was the impact of the pandemic upon students’ mental health and wellbeing. Figures from WONKHE and Trandence which suggest that students feel more lonely and isolated as a result of the coronavirus crisis point to what is described as a “mental health crisis among young people”. The lack of resources within students’ home environments is also cited as a reason for adjusting exam requirements this year.

The newspapers are calling for a policy similar to that of the University of York to be adopted by all the Russell Group Universities. First years will be able to resit any failed exams up to the value of 90 credits, while the weightings of the second and third year will be readjusted, with candidates able to choose the better mark. Those behind the editorial believe this will ensure students can “simply focus on their studies, confident they will not be impacted by COVID-19, whilst preserving the value of their degrees to employers”.

The editors from the various newspapers have also stressed that they are in a unique position to put forward concerns given that “not only are we students ourselves but we are also in constant contact with the students at our respective universities, as part of the function of our extracurricular roles”. This means that they have a “unique insight” into the “attitudes, viewpoints and beliefs” of those studying at university.

The article was written in response to a statement from the Russell Group published earlier in the month. The organisation, which represents 24 UK universities and 446,450 undergraduate students, announced that they “do not consider that using the same algorithmic approach to provide individual ‘no detriment’ or ‘safety net’ policies, which were introduced by some institutions as an emergency measure at the end of the last academic year, is necessary or appropriate this year”.

The universities claim that were they to take such action their degrees may no longer “command the confidence of employers and professional bodies”. However, a student backlash to the policy has grown, with three of Oxford University’s newspapers issuing a joint article calling for a reversal of the position earlier in the month.

Last year, the university instituted a “safety-net” policy for students. At the time the decision was taken “to reduce the risk that students may be disadvantaged by the conditions in which they revise for and sit their exams in the exceptional circumstances of the CV-19 pandemic.” Summative assessments taken prior to Trinity term could be taken into consideration in order to determine both grades and degree classifications. However, work undertaken in tutorials was not allowed to be included as it was deemed “not sufficiently rigorous or consistent”.

In response to the university’s decision not to implement a similar policy this year, the Oxford Students Union has organised a “Fair Outcomes for Students” campaign which is calling for the university to “implement an empathetic approach by reassessing their plans for workload and assessment”. The Union plans to lobby the university to ensure individual and cohort challenges are recognised, while it urges students to get in contact with those involved in examination arrangements at a course level.

One of Cherwell’s editors-in-chief, Lucy Tansley, explained the aim behind the editorial.

“We’re hoping that in joining together with students in a similar position at other universities that our collective voice may be listened to in making policy changes to exams that will ultimately have a significant impact on our future”.

Amelia Horn, the paper’s other editor-in-chief added: “It’s really exciting to be working with the other papers on such an important project for the student body. It’s clear that across the UK there is a mood among students that they have treated unfairly, and this is something that we felt was important to demonstrate.

“It seems the Russell Group not only consider teaching to not have been disrupted, despite having almost a year of remote or blended learning, but also that the general distress caused by living in a pandemic is not enough to require special circumstances. This has led to a nationwide injustice for the 2021 graduate cohort as well as younger years taking exams and coursework.

“A joint statement between Russell Group papers is something never done before and we hope that this will platform student voices that seem to have gone ignored thus far.”

Photo: Mike Peel

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