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Opinion: Students are struggling, it’s time for a safety net

‘2020 has been a terrible year for everyone.’

Yes. It has. And I am certain that I did not have the worst.

I did, however, lose two of my grandparents, spend the entire second semester of my second year at home in another country without seeing my university friends, and start the first semester of my final year staring at a laptop screen for hours on end, every day.

Innocently, perhaps stupidly, I believed that a new year, closely linked to the promises of a Covid-19 vaccine, would bring some improvement to my university experience. Alas, I was wrong, and I feel like us students have been failed once more – this time, by the Russell Group.

On the 7th of January, just one week into 2021, the Russell Group released a statement ‘on ensuring fair assessment and protecting the integrity of degrees.’

I will save you the pain of reading through the entire statement: the Russell group, and therefore, the University of Manchester, will not be implementing a ‘no disadvantage policy’ or ‘safety net’ in order to guarantee that students will be fairly assessed.

The statement asserts that the reason behind this is the wish to uphold the “the quality and the integrity of our degrees”. They go on to claim that the universities have “put in place new teaching and learning plans and a range of support services so students can continue their academic study. They have also adapted assessment methods so students can demonstrate their knowledge and attainment of learning outcomes”.

Naturally, I can only speak from my experience as an English Literature and Creative Writing student, and as much as I value the support and continuously good teaching that my lecturers have provided me with, I do not agree that the University of Manchester, as a whole, has adapted all that well to online teaching. On my course specifically, the main alterations that we have been made aware of, are word count reductions, which, while I am grateful for, aren’t exactly the help we need.

For one, I think teaching institutions have failed to recognise the detriment that many hours on a computer cause to our health, be it physical or psychological. It is easy to suggest going for a run, or reading, or socialising in breaks, but when the whole world has been transported online it becomes very hard to take a break.

Many students, especially those in student accommodation have entered vicious circles – waking up, turning their laptops on, eating, and going back to sleep. Throughout the entire first semester, I have only been back to Manchester for the duration of two weeks in October, despite having been paying for my accommodation since early September.

Sarah Findley, another student on my course shared her concerns about the lack of a ‘no disadvantage policy’.

‘”I believe the strain the pandemic has caused on students’ mental health has been extreme. My friends and I have felt continuously anxious about not only our academic performance, but also the health of our families,” she said.

“I appreciate the hard work of our lecturers to make online seminars engaging and lectures informative. However, for a course like English, there is nothing better than debating ideas in person. I have often suffered from headaches and fatigue during long periods of staring at zoom calls and my laptop screen. By the end of last semester, I could tell my engagement and motivation was starting to drop off.”

When I asked Sarah if she felt that a ‘no disadvantage policy’ would be fair, she replied: “In my opinion, the No Disadvantage Policy would be the only satisfactory method of awarding students with fair grades. The situation is so much worse than last March. Covid-19 infection rates are incredibly high right now and the number of daily deaths is becoming more and more frightening.”

“I think the leadership team are completely out-of-touch with students’ needs, desires and worries.

“We are getting into phenomenal amounts of debt, only to possibly leave with lower grades than we would have done in normal circumstances.”

“The argument that last year’s final years were only worthy of such a policy because the pandemic was unexpected is flawed. Those students had nearly six months of in-person support and full access to resources. The majority of current students have had neither of those things for nearly a year. If leading figures don’t help us soon, students will reach breaking point.”

This is a crucial issue in the battle against unfair grading during the pandemic. The Russell Group, claims that “in many cases the use of such algorithms [safety nets] would not be possible given the scarcity of pre-pandemic benchmarking data available for many students”.

While that may be true, there are a series of other measures that could be implemented, for instance, awarding a pass baseline grade to all first year students. It seems incredibly unfair to cut first year students off from obtaining good grades before they have even been given a chance at normal teaching or assessments. For final years, there is more than enough evidence of the work we have undertaken and the quality of work we are capable of.

It is also important to note that mitigating circumstances are not enough! Especially when the process to obtain extensions or mitigation is so complex and does not fully recognise the limitations that the pandemic has imposed.

Sarah went on to express what I believe most students around the U.K. are feeling right now: “I believe our generation will never forget the lack of compassion currently being shown by universities.”

On the 15th January 2021, the University of Manchester informed students that they will be announcing an ‘assessment pledge’ early next week. We can only hope that our voices have been heard and that we will be treated justly.

Tags: assessment, no disadvantage policy, Russell Group, safety net, University of Manchester

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