It is an understatement to say that we are living in extraordinary times. Last March, the UK, along with the rest of the world, came to a grinding halt at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as we tried to cope with a crisis that was entirely without precedent. The Prime Minister told us then that “things are going to get worse before they get better” – but the reality of this warning has only now been fully realised.
Ten months later, the UK has entered the worst stage of its crisis so far: tragically, cases and deaths have soared and, once again, students have been asked to study from home with Hilary term teaching moved online. However, many are highly concerned about the limited and restrained adjustments recently made by the University of Oxford to account for the deterioration of the coronavirus crisis and its impact on the upcoming term and students’ education as a whole.
It is not unreasonable to expect that students should not be disadvantaged by circumstances wholly beyond their control. That is why the editorial boards of The Oxford Blue, The Oxford Student and Cherwell are calling on the University of Oxford to introduce a fair ‘no-detriment’ policy for finalists.
While the scale of this tragedy has been devastating in terms of loss of life, the quality of students’ education has also suffered enormously. Students have raised serious concerns in recent days and weeks about issues at home: different time zones to Oxford in their home location; a lack of space; noise; and an absence of essential work tools including a desk, books, a computer and a stable, high-speed internet connection. Furthermore, international students are faced with additional (and unpredictable) challenges, such as having to make travel plans, negotiating complex and changeable immigration policies, undergoing mandatory periods of quarantine (either in private accomodation or specialist facilities) and/or firewalled internet access. Students who are materially more privileged than others in these areas are thus at a significant advantage compared to their peers.
Many students have also felt lonely, confused and anxious throughout the pandemic. Like the rest of the population, students have had to contend with self-isolation and the emotional impact of being unable to socialise normally with friends, family and partners. Some students have been ill with COVID-19 themselves or had to care for sick household members and loved ones whilst keeping up with the famously rigorous, unrelenting pace of an Oxford degree. The pandemic’s asymmetric demands on students means that a one-size-fits-all approach cannot be feasible and a ‘no-detriment’ policy is crucial for student success.
In such extraordinary circumstances – and ten months into the UK’s COVID-19 crisis – students deserve better than inflexibility and an insistence that it is possible to study as normal in such tough conditions. It is crucial to recognise the circumstances that led to the establishment of the ‘no-detriment policy’ last spring have only been prolonged and exacerbated over the course of recent months. If students are to pay full tuition fees for a severely diminished university education, it is right that the University at least intervenes to accommodate the impact of COVID-19 on our learning experience and academic attainment.
Last year, in light of the rapid spread and impact of COVID-19, the University listened to student feedback and implemented what they called a no-detriment policy, designed to ensure that finalists did not suffer from the consequences of a global issue outside of their control. Whilst by no means perfect, this policy was executed well in many respects. The optionality from last year should be continued further given the nature of the ongoing crisis. Imposing any one formula on the entire student body will unfairly disadvantage a significant number of its members. If we prioritise simplicity, we may unintentionally neglect the nuances of the situation which we face. Decentralising choice to students means that assessment will consider principles of fairness and equity, and ensure that each student can face the challenges we all find ourselves facing on their own terms, in a way that is right for them. That is what a no-detriment policy must guarantee.
There is undoubtedly a shared interest amongst the entire staff-student body in not wanting the value of an Oxford degree to be diluted, and everyone understands the importance of ‘academic rigour’; it is why many students apply to study here. However, it is unavoidable that students will be affected to varying degrees by the pandemic. Some will feel unable to be examined at the end of this calendar year if, for example, they or a close family member fall ill and/or they have been struggling with mental health issues. Others may be able to undertake exams, but will have to do so in extremely difficult conditions. More still will need to fulfil academic conditions to begin postgraduate courses but may or may not be able to be assessed next term. It suffices to say that no one solution can accommodate all students in a satisfactory manner and, therefore, a solution similar to last year must be implemented.
Yesterday’s email from the University, however, is not only a disappointment but an insult to the entire student body. By refusing to implement a clear ‘safety net’ policy, the University is downplaying the real-world impact that the pandemic has had on students’ learning – both in terms of access to teaching and resources, and of the effect of this crisis on students’ mental health. Some individual departments have also introduced policies that represent a ‘business as usual’ approach to exams and assessments, despite students’ loss of library access, resources and study spaces. A reliance on examiners’ personal acknowledgement of the past year’s unique circumstances cannot replace a formal framework that can evaluate and mitigate inequalities in learning and attainment.
The University has said that it will announce “additional measures” to ensure fair degree outcomes in “the middle of Hilary term”. The only way to ensure fairness is for the University – in conjunction with departments and faculties – to commit, as soon as possible, to a no-detriment policy for all those taking exams and submitting other assessments. Such measures can ensure that no individual Oxford student is unjustly disadvantaged by the effect of the pandemic on their learning in the last year and during the next.
Oxford’s Student Union, which serves as a voice for a student body of over 22,000, has said that the University should “recognise the academic challenges by reassessing workloads and assessment practices”, calling for a “fair outcome policy” defined as “a system of policies put in place to mitigate the detrimental effects of the pandemic on students with exams and coursework this year”. This will involve the re-scaling and re-weighting of exams and coursework to reflect the impact of the pandemic on the whole cohort. At an individual level, the Student Union has called for students to be able to file for mitigating circumstances and deadline extensions – without needing to prove that the pandemic has affected their studies – and to access better financial, academic and mental health support. We wholeheartedly endorse these demands and encourage students to find out more about the Student Union’s campaign and services and attend the online workshop taking place this evening (13 January), which will address these issues.
Other universities in the Russell Group, such the University of York, have also started to implement similar ‘safety net’ policies, and the Universities of Leeds, Lancaster and Bristol are considering similar approaches. A petition by Oxford students to the Vice Chancellor to implement “fair safety nets” has already attracted almost 800 signatures at the time of writing.
On Tuesday, the University ruled out the possibility of a ‘blanket safety net’, but given the disruption caused to the last two terms – which will likely endure even beyond Hilary term – it must now act to introduce a fair no-detriment policy which will also reflect the impact of the pandemic on assessments, just as last year’s safety net did. To fail to do so will present an entirely unfair disadvantage to Oxford students, directly undermining the University’s commitment to student welfare and academic success.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on a whole generation of students can not even begin to be graphed on a curve. This crisis is, as we are so often reminded, ‘unprecedented’ – but extraordinary times surely call for equally extraordinary measures.
A fair, robust no-detriment policy is one of those measures – and it must be implemented now.