NUSU understands that during this time there is huge uncertainty for students surrounding the pandemic and changing tier restrictions within the university and regionally. Therefore, it is understandable why students would like to see increased support for their academic studies. NUSU supports you in this and we would like to express our solidarity with the student body. We understand that this year has been limited and ultimately, has not been the University experience that you were expecting.
On Friday 4th December, students were sent an email outlining the University’s approach to assessment this year. This email, and accompanying blog post, details the existing procedures, regulations, and policies that ensure marks are fair this academic year. We are glad the University has clarified the current plans in place, but believe there are additional changes that could be implemented to ensure students feel that their marks are fair and their performance is not at a detriment due to the various impacts of COVID-19.
- Appetite for the Safety Net Policy
- How did the baseline average work?
- Our demand for a 'Near Miss Policy'
- How the policy would impact UG & PGT students
- How the policy would impact PGR students
- What action will we be taking?
- Other concerns raised
We have seen student appetite for a ‘safety net policy’, demonstrated both through responses to our Supporting Our Students anonymous feedback box and a student-led petition. We understand that students want to see some information about how the University is taking the very real effects of COVID-19 on your education into account and that some students feel a safety net policy would be an appropriate policy to achieve this. However, we would also like to outline some of the differences that need to be taken into account when tackling the issue of a safety net further, particularly in comparing last year's policy with the possibility of a new one for this academic year. There are more nuances that need to be brought into view and it cannot be identical to the previous guidelines. Due to these differences, we feel it is appropriate to change the name of this policy from a ‘Safety Net’ to a ‘Near Miss Policy’.
Firstly, we (Sian as Education Officer and Charlotte as Postgraduate Officer) have already been consulting both the University and students on the issue of a safety net and broadly there has been a mixed response to the implementation of one. There are many aspects to consider how this would work, and it is not as simple as it may seem. Most students are aware of the ‘baseline average’ component of the safety net and are likely basing their request for a safety net from this mitigation which was brought in for academic year 2019/20 for semester 2 assessments.
The baseline average was calculated using students' average grades up until March 2020 (so this would consider January assignments, and for undergraduates stage 2 and above it would also take into account previous years study). The policy meant that students on undergraduate programmes would retain this average grade and would be unable to finish with a degree classification average below their baseline average, and if there were improvements to their grades, these improved grades would be used. For postgraduate taught students, due to the limited amount of grades available as these are typically one year courses so only January assignments grades could be used, the safety net did not guarantee an average grade, only that the existing grades would be taken into account at the Board of Examiners. For postgraduate research students, it was not possible to establish a baseline average of grades, due to the complicated and individualised nature of research degrees.
The main concern is that there is no baseline from which to base students’ marks on. This is a new year and first year undergraduates will not have marks yet which reflect their academic experience at University. Whilst it could be argued that A-level grades could be taken into account, secondary education is at a different qualification level to University education, complicating the possibility of extrapolating these results; this, alongside the myriad of issues caused by the algorithms used to decide A-level results this year means it’s likely some of these grades do not accurately reflect students’ capabilities, and could disadvantage students from more marginalised backgrounds. For undergraduates in stage 2 and above, it would be unfair to use their grades from a year ago, particularly as there is generally an improvement in students grades as they progress through the stages of their degree. This is particularly seen in final year students as they tend to improve their grades in their final assignments, so basing a baseline average on grades from previous stages may not be reflective of their actual grade potential for this academic year.
Postgraduate taught students are in a similar situation to first year undergraduates, with no existing grades from this academic year to base any averages on. Some postgraduates come from other universities, so there is no access to their previous undergraduate grades. For postgraduates who have continued their studies from undergraduate level at Newcastle, there are similar regulatory issues due to postgraduate degrees being at a higher qualification level to undergraduate degrees, so grades from undergraduate cannot necessarily be seen to be reflective of postgraduate performance. And again, postgraduate research students would be missed out if a safety net policy only accounted for baseline average grade, leaving these students at a disadvantage compared to taught students.
It is important to note that this year was planned as much as it could be in the circumstances under the Education Resilience Framework, which outlines the University’s flexible learning plan, where students were made aware of the possibility of in-person teaching being revoked, should the University feel that there was a risk to safety of both students and staff. The tier system introduced by the Department for Education prioritises the health and safety of staff and students - importantly, postgraduate research students often teach too, and we support protecting the health and safety of all staff and students through increased safety measures. This does not mean that we do not support you in this unprecedented situation, but rather feel that there is a more nuanced list of actions which could be taken in order for you to feel more supported, instead of a blanket ‘safety net’ policy.
As a result of these previous discussions and appetite from the student body for a ‘net’ to be put in place, your Education and Postgraduate Officer will lobby for the following demands as a ‘Near Miss Policy’ for taught programmes (Undergraduate & Postgraduate Taught):
- The University introduces a sliding scale of mark deductions for late assignments, like Nottingham, Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Strathclyde and Liverpool, whereby a student loses a % of their mark per working day that their submission is late, up to a maximum of 7 days. We would demand that the marks dropped would be no more than 5 per working day, not including weekends or University closure days. We would want this to be a permanent change to the Assessment and Feedback Policy across the University, continuing beyond the 2020/21 academic year. This was passed as a motion in Students’ Union Council in 2019.
- The University stops assessment bunching. This was passed as a motion in Students’ Union Council in 2020. We would want this to be a permanent change to the Assessment and Feedback Policy across the University, continuing beyond the 2020/2021 academic year. That Schools should ensure that workload is balanced across the academic year and programme by implementing the following:
- No more than two assessment deadlines per week.
- 48 hours between assessment deadlines.
- No assessment deadlines 14 days before the Dissertation/Final Project deadline.
- No assessments the same day as site visits or field trips other than for work specifically related to the site visit/field trip.
- Monitor and record the assessment deadline dates of each different degree at the beginning of each Semester.
- The University introduces uncapped resits for the 2020/2021 academic year, temporarily changing the Assessment and Feedback policy which currently caps students resit marks at 40% for undergraduate modules and 50% for postgraduate modules. The student should have the opportunity to be able to achieve the highest mark they can, taking into account the added peace of mind which may reduce anxiety around assessments and offering students a second chance. Semester 1 assessments are particularly likely to be affected by the tumultuous first term of teaching and multiple periods of lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions, and there should be the option for students to resit a module later in the academic year if they feel this will benefit their academic performance and mental health.
- That for the 2020/21 academic year, the University ensures that the Board of Examiners for all programmes consistently considers whether to exercise discretion to award a higher classification of degree when students have a final programme average within two marks of a classification boundary. Whilst we understand that this is a usual regulation (page 45), we believe students would appreciate the reassurance of knowing that Board of Examiners have been reminded of this option to exercise discretion when deciding degree classifications at the end of the academic year. Considerations of discretion usually take into account the mark profile and progressive improvement in performance; we ask that the wider context of the difficulties of studying during the COVID-19 pandemic also be taken into account alongside these usual considerations.
- Each faculty (HaSS, SAgE and FMS) commits to taking into account where performance may have been impacted by barriers to accessing facilities (including the library resources, specialist facilities such as studios and software) due to COVID-19, when marking and giving feedback on assessments. Markers should demonstrate goodwill when deliberating marks, considering the circumstances of the pandemic during the academic year and any Personal Extenuating Circumstances (PECs) that have been submitted by individual students during the module. This should extend to adaptations and adjustments to existing models of assessment and new forms of assessment, which students and staff have needed to adapt to under the flexible learning context. This particularly applies to larger projects such as dissertations and fieldwork which often coincide with an individual’s summative assessment at the end of their programme, which may have been significantly changed due to COVID-19 restrictions. This should apply for all taught programmes (undergraduate and postgraduate) for this academic year.
For postgraduate research students, there are different, complex needs that are unlikely to be met by the above demands for taught students. As the nature of research degrees is highly individualised to each project, a holistic set of mitigations is difficult to construct. The following list is intended to suggest some mitigations that would help postgraduate research students to complete their research and not be unfairly impacted by COVID-19 effects and restrictions:
- That the eligibility criteria for the COVID-19 Impact Scholarships be extended to include PhD students whose minimum candidature ends after April 2022. The University should ensure all PhD students at any stage of their degree can access support; there are current students impacted by COVID-19 now who finish after this date, who should have the same access to support as later-stage PhD candidates. Whilst some students may prefer to hold off on requesting extensions until a later date, some students want the peace of mind of knowing they can request additional time in advance.
- Each faculty (HaSS, SAgE and FMS) commits to taking into account where performance may have been impacted by barriers to accessing facilities (including the library resources, specialist facilities such as studios and software) or conducting fieldwork due to COVID-19, when marking for taught modules and when conducting Annual Progression Reviews (APRs). Markers, internal and external examiners, and APR Panels should demonstrate goodwill when deliberating marks, considering the circumstances of the pandemic during the academic year and any Change of Circumstances forms that have been submitted by individual students during the academic year.
- That PGR access to facilities in a COVID-secure manner be prioritised when planning for semester two access to buildings. Many PGRs have been restricted from their offices and labs, yet expected to complete their research at the same rate. If restrictions mean students can only access facilities in a limited way, supervisors should work with their supervisees to discuss the implications on time expected to complete their research and be more considerate of short-term extension requests, utilising the existing tuition fee-free extensions offered to PGR students.
- To continue the option to submit a 500-word supporting statement about COVID-19 impacts for the 2021 APR process, as the effects of COVID-19 are continual and are still impacting PGR’s research progress. Staff should continue to take these statements into consideration during the APR process and offer support to struggling students, being mindful that there may be lasting impact of interruption to research and other extenuating circumstances which requires consistent support. Staff should not assume that students don’t require support if they pass their APR, acknowledging that the student has done the best they can in their circumstances, and continue to raise awareness of support and extensions throughout their studies.
When we say we will lobby the University, this means we will have discussions with the relevant University staff to put forward the changes we want to implement, including the Pro-Vice Chancellor Education, Taught Programme Deans and PG Deans. We have a strong working relationship with many of the staff responsible for managing teaching and learning, and are confident that we can have productive conversations that lead to our changes being implemented as a Near Miss Policy to benefit students this academic year. We have already spoken to some staff about these proposals and will be arranging further dedicated meetings to ensure our proposals are heard and acted upon.
With regards to the other elements highlighted within the Safety Net Petition, many of these concerns are already being addressed. We have fed back student dissatisfaction with the online teaching hours and highlighted the problem areas that students have informed us about in multiple meetings with the University. We have been reassured that this is something that will be rectified in time for Semester 2, and will continue to push on this issue to ensure changes are made.
We feel that concerns that students are being held to “the same standards as previous years” should be mitigated by existing regulations and our demands to ensure your educational experience is fair. The University has explained that grades can be scaled if the mark profile looks unusual compared to previous years and many assessments have been adapted for this academic year’s specific circumstances; these measures, alongside the proposals we are fighting for, should give students more confidence that their academic performance will not be unfairly compared to a normal academic year’s expectations.
If your mental health is being affected, the University Wellbeing Service not only have their usual services in place (including counselling, support services and online CBT through Silvercloud) but also a new service called TalkCampus where you can access peer support from across the globe. Further, if you have had to leave your university-owned accommodation due to a wellbeing concern, then please contact the Wellbeing Service which can help you.
We are listening to all concerns, and any feedback is really useful and directly impacts our conversations with University staff, so please contact us if you want support. We have discussed the Near Miss Policy demands with School Reps through our Education Exec, seeking feedback from representatives from undergraduate, postgraduate taught and postgraduate research positions to ensure we are fighting for what you want and need.
As always, you can message us at anytime via our emails: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
Sian Dickie - NUSU Education Officer.
Charlotte Boulton - NUSU Postgraduate Officer.