The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

We need to talk about deadlines

Charlotte Green argues that prioritising logistics over student interests has negatively impacted final year Politics students

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The University of Manchester has remained remarkably untouched by student protest over the last few years – mostly because it has avoided the kind of privatisation and outsourcing that has caused such uproar at Sussex and Birmingham. Throughout the years that I have studied here I have never felt cause to occupy a campus building, or protest outside the Vice Chancellors office.
I’m proud of the way that Manchester maintains its’ internal working community; Food on Campus in particular has been incredibly successful in its’ commitments to locally-sourced food, its’ Fairtrade status and sustainable food policy. Despite being one of the largest universities in the UK it has a local feel, and over two years I formed the impression that the University is committed to prioritising student welfare and achievement over profit and convenience.
Or at least I did, right up until my final year – the year of the dissertation. The dissertation is treated as a sacrament – the culmination of three years of work, knowledge building and preparation. The majority of us will only ever obtain an undergraduate degree, which makes the final year dissertation the only genuine contribution we will ever make to academic literature. Whilst not on the same level as G4S security contracts, the fact that the deadline for Politics dissertations was brought forward to the 31st of March in a startling break with precedent does seem to be part of a new trend in higher education to prioritise logistics over students’ interests.
According to course convenor Professor David Richards this early deadline was the result of the lateness of Easter and the “need to be able to dispatch material to the external examiners before entering the actual examination period”. The deadline had been stated from the beginning of the year – so we cannot fault the department for poor communication. However, the argument given for this earlier deadline, which is weeks before most other Humanities and Social Science department deadlines, does not withstand closer scrutiny.
The lateness of Easter, which falls on the 20th of April this year, is not a new occurrence. In 2011 Easter Sunday was even later – landing on the 24th. And yet that year the vagaries of the Christian calendar did not seem to be so important; the deadline remained steadfastly in May consistent with previous years.
So what exactly is different about this year that makes even the moderate lateness of Easter such a fantastically huge issue? Head of Politics Andrew Russell pointed out that Politics has an extremely large number of dissertations to mark before they can be sent off to external examiners, more than either Sociology or Philosophy, both of which are disciplines that have retained deadlines after the Easter break. But this does not explain why the History department has also not seen fit to bring forward their deadline to before Easter. Politics has 195 final year dissertations; History has nearly 200. Additionally all their dissertations are 40 credits, rather than the mix of 20 and 40 credit dissertations that make up the Politics total. And yet somehow the History department are managing to balance their marking commitments within the established timeframe.
In response to my question about why there wasn’t a coherent approach to dissertations across the Humanities and Social Science disciplines Andrew Russell stated that “History is in a different School of course and have to be free to set own procedures”.
So the defence of the earlier Politics deadline appears to rest on a contradictory mix of appeals to faculty autonomy whilst at the same time, relinquishing all responsibility by blaming external factors. Apart from merely being bad logic this approach hardly epitomises the principles of ‘best practice’ that the University prescribes.
The real problem is that the earlier deadline has had huge implications for students in terms of balancing their workload. Attending lectures and tutorials over the last few weeks has been of secondary importance to most Politics students, essential though those hours are they are not seen as imperative when compared with the importance of producing the best possible dissertation.
Additionally, although the deadline was communicated to students from September onwards, there seem to have been discrepancies in how this information was conveyed to course leaders, resulting in many module deadlines clustering around the same time as the dissertation deadline. Another Politics student wanted to know “why they [the course convenors] didn’t check with other Politics courses that it wouldn’t fall at the exact same time as loads of their essays, which it did”. The lucky few, me included, have had essay deadlines delayed to alleviate the stress of balancing coursework commitments with completing an extensive dissertation.
But most students have not had this support and as such have been placed under undue pressure. When I made this point Andrew Russell responded that “as far as the coincidence of deadlines is something we have every year, so whether they be in February, March, April or May there are always likely to be clashes and the only thing we can say to students is that it’s about time management”. Ironically it is the Politics department’s own botched attempts at ‘time management’ that has produced this mess in the first place.
When electronic submission is fully rolled out in two years’ time, there will be greater flexibility around the days on which work can be submitted, which should go some way to streamlining the procedure of essay submission. The news of this innovation will bring little comfort to those students who have suffered this year’s break with precedent – nor, I suspect, will the knowledge that next year the traditional deadline will be restored. As far as me and my contemporaries are concerned; we will have suffered in isolation, and for no valid reason.