I am writing this Officer blog to inform you on the current discussions that have been happening last week and today on the issue of a Safety Net. Below is an email that was sent on 08/01/2021, written by me as your Education Officer and Charlotte, as your Postgraduate Officer. We sent this email to Suzanne Cholerton, Pro Vice Chancellor for Education at Newcastle University, to reiterate what academic mitigations we are looking to put in place for you as students. This email was sent prior to planned meetings to discuss our Near Miss Policy proposals and consider all options for providing safety net measures. We want you to know that as your student representatives, we are fighting for as much as we can possibly get you by ways of support from the University. Please read below the update which discusses York’s mitigations, our demands and what Sabbatical Officers from across the UK are doing to pressure the University sector into offering more support during this time.
Email addressed to PVC Education:
We understand that a ‘safety net’ with an algorithm as its measure is not something which can be done due to the integrity that needs to be maintained with our degree programmes at Newcastle, and the lack of existing comparable grades available to base any algorithms on. However, what York, a Russell Group University, has put in place as a safety net package is something which we view as a form of best practice.
In particular, the University of York safety net measures offer “Reweighting this year’s marks for students in second year and above so that this year can be weighted less in the calculation of overall degree performance.” We are glad that some of their other points are already being implemented at Newcastle, as we have also removed the requirements for evidence when submitting PEC forms and are already reviewing the performance of student cohorts this year against performance of previous years. However, we believe Newcastle should seriously consider implementing a similar option to reweight this year's marks for degree classifications and progression.
York’s policy appears to offer the option to use the better of the reweighted calculation and the normal weighting calculation, to ensure the student’s best academic performance is reflected in their degree classification. In our opinion, this is a good option that would offer students some level of reassurance without damaging academic standards as York’s policy is in line with Newcastle’s academic context.
We would also like to consider York’s measure of “Applying the more flexible award rules which were used to give assurance to postgraduate taught students in 2020”. We feel that postgraduate taught students ned similar levels of mitigation to other years on taught programmes, and as weighting doesn’t work in the same way for the short PGT degrees, we think this should be considered too. In particular, “Merits and distinctions will be calculated based on the better of your independent study module (for example: project, dissertation, performance etc) grade or the credit weighted average of your taught modules.” This would provide postgraduate taught students with greater reassurance too, as many are particularly concerned about having the entirety of their course being completed under pandemic conditions, and offering some greater flexibility about how classifications will be calculated would be very welcomed.
Therefore, we ask that the demands that we outlined in our Near Miss Policy and York’s measures be put ‘on the table’ for the discussions that we will have on Monday. We believe that synthesising approaches will be the best way to support students during this time, and that best practice from other Russell Group universities should be considered.
Finally, we would like to note that we and Dorothy have signed an open letter co-produced by the student representatives of Russell Group university SUs, Associations and Guilds. This is to show support to students alongside Sabbatical Officers from other Universities about the statement which the Russell Group released and the mechanisms which we believe should be put in place to support the student body at universities across the UK.
Sian Dickie (Education Officer) and Charlotte Boulton (Postgraduate Officer)
Update - 11.01.2021
On Monday 11th January, Charlotte and I attended two meetings to discuss our Near Miss Policy demands and address the student appetite for measures similar to York’s safety net. We share the same concerns as the many students emailing us to express their worries about the assessment and grading this academic year; in particular, ensuring our students aren’t at a disadvantage compared to students from other Russell Group universities implementing safety net measures. Our first meeting focused on finding the best ways to support our postgraduate research students, at a meeting with PVC Education and the PG Deans. Our second meeting was to discuss support for all taught programme students (including undergraduates and postgraduate taught students), with PVC Education and the Taught Programme Deans.
PGR Measures Update - written by Charlotte (Postgraduate Officer)
For our PGRs, the main issues we’ve received feedback on are related to lack of funding, concerns about the impact of COVID-19 and related restrictions on fieldwork and access to research facilities, and lack of communications with PGRs on the support that is in place. There were positive discussions around my proposals to revisit the eligibility criteria for the COVID-19 Impact Scholarships funded extensions scheme, which I will be discussing further with the PG Deans to ensure that much-needed funding is more easily accessible to any student who requires it. There was a focus on ensuring students with caring responsibilities, disabilities and other personal extenuating circumstances are being supported with funding opportunities, acknowledging that these student groups may experience additional stressors, commitments and inequalities that need to be catered for by additional levels of support. All attendees agreed that markers would take into account how academic performance, and research projects, have been impacted by COVID-19 and its restrictions on research and access to facilities, and we are working together on communications plans to ensure this is clear for all PGRs, and staff involved in supervising and examining.
There was agreement that it was important to continue the use of COVID-19 impact statements for APRs, with discussions about producing additional guidance to make these as easy as possible for PGRs to complete. It was felt that better communications are needed to ensure that PGRs are receiving important information, and ensuring PGRs aren’t feeling forgotten. I had spoken to the University about communications prior to this meeting, and it was agreed that bespoke PGR emails will now be sent regularly, in line with other student and staff emails to maintain clearer channels of communication. We see this as a very positive move forward in communications with PGRs, as we know how important it is to know where to find the information you need.
I noted the importance of making these decisions quickly, as students need support as soon as possible, and asked that the University communicate with students that these discussions are happening, to keep you up to date and reassured that we are working on these proposals. We’re living through very fast-moving times, and the University must adapt to this reality, in realistic timeframes that ensure the measures put in place are the best for our students. We feel very positive about the productive discussion and are looking forward to refining the details on some of these important measures to provide our PGR students with as much support as we can.
Taught Programme Measures - written by Sian (Education Officer)
For our taught programme students, the main issues that we’ve received feedback on are: the lack of facilities available to students, including the main libraries; concerns about the bunching of assessments; lack of certainty from schools with regards to ensuring fair marks; and the strain and mental toll that the pandemic, as well as studying for a university degree, is taking on students. There were positive discussions on many of the Near Miss Policy proposals. However, I made a concerted effort to address the fact that the policy does not go far enough in terms of offering students from a wide range of backgrounds the support that they need during this time. For example, disabled and international students are likely to need further levels of support due to the extra personal extenuating circumstances that impact their education during this pandemic. I further emphasised how the public health situation has changed since the original time of publishing and that the University needs to address more than what is being outlined in the Near Miss Policy; students need and should have more support.
The University was broadly supportive of our Near Miss Policy proposals. This included the sliding scale for mark reduction on late assignments, reducing assessment bunching as much as possible, and ensuring that the Board of Examiners for all programmes consistently consider exercising discretion for marks close to grade boundaries. However, I highlighted that some of these ideas were old ones that many other universities have already implemented. The sliding scale and the reduction of assessment bunching is something that the University should be doing anyway to support students but due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic, it is now more important to implement these policies as soon as possible.
We both spoke at length in favour of a ‘York-style’ safety net, viewing this as a measure which could offer students reassurance about their grades which may be impacted by the pandemic. It was clear to both of us in this meeting that the University was not in favour of the ‘York-style’ safety net measures. We inquired as to why this could not be done, and amongst other reasons, the University felt as if it could have the potential to damage the value of our degrees. When I pushed for another alternative, there was a lack of solutions for a larger, more tangible measure that would be an equivalent ‘York-style’ safety net for Newcastle students. Therefore, it was decided that the PVC Education, Taught Programme Deans, Charlotte and I would meet again this coming Thursday (14/01/2021). This gives University staff time to reconvene and return to our discussions with a viable alternative that they view as suiting the University’s need to maintain academic standards, as well as providing students with a reassuring solution which is as fair and supportive as possible for all students at Newcastle University.
Future updates planned for this week
We plan to update this post when we have further updates from our meeting on Thursday 14th January. We continue to share students' experiences and opinions on safety net measures and their university experience with University staff every day, representing the student voice at the highest levels. Hopefully, this blog shows you how we are fighting for all students to receive the support they need, studying and researching during a global pandemic which has impacted us all in different ways. We hear you and we are here to help.
Alongside the work we are doing to make changes within Newcastle University, there is a national movement amongst Russell Group university student officers to express disagreement with the Russell Group’s statement that they were ruling out using safety net measures. Our President, Dorothy, was a lead writer of this letter calling for Russell Group universities to introduce supportive academic measures and collaborate with student representatives to co-develop changes to policies and introduction of new measures. We hope that the Russell Group universities, including Newcastle, take notice of this letter and ensure that any support measures for this academic year are clearly publicised, fair and in the student interest.
Sian Dickie (NUSU Education Officer)
Charlotte Boulton (NUSU Postgraduate Officer)