Russell Group: No safety net for students’ grades caused ‘anxiety’, SUs write

A letter from the students’ unions of the 24 Russell Group universities has disavowed current arrangements for assessments and grading this year

Russell Group universities should allow students to self-certify if they are entitled to mitigating circumstances in upcoming examinations and assessments, an alliance of students’ union presidents said today.

The demand is one of several made by the Aldwych Group, the students’ unions, guilds and associations representing around half a million learners at UK Russell Group universities.

Last week, the Russell Group announced allowances for the disruption caused by Covid-19 when awarding grades – but ruled out an “algorithmic approach to provide individual ‘no detriment’ or ‘safety net’ policies”.

The group of 24 elite UK universities acknowledged the challenges for students during the pandemic but are “confident” that measures – such as new blended learning models, support services and adapted assessment methods – will ensure students receive the grades they deserve.

We call upon universities to implement safety net policies that both apply to all students, no matter their background or course, and that take into account the individual challenges students have face
Russell Group students’ unions

The Aldwych Group said the universities’ rejection of a safety net “caused unnecessary anxiety amongst the students who we represent”.

Despite assurances to the contrary, the presidents said students are in a “similar situation to that of March 2020”: housebound and unable to access libraries, resources and study spaces “that are necessary for many students to succeed academically”.

“We are calling on universities to recognise that all students continue to be affected by the pandemic. Any rejection of safety net policies because they apply to all students fails to recognise the aforementioned fact,” the letter continued. “We call upon universities to implement safety net policies that both apply to all students, no matter their background or course, and that take into account the individual challenges students have faced.”

The SUs want Russell Group universities to “remove the burden of proof” and allow students “to self-certify for mitigating circumstances”. “It is our belief that students should not have to prove that living through a pandemic has affected them and their studies,” the letter added.

The letter asks universities to “clearly publish what mitigations they are putting in place for students” because there are many “who currently feel as though much isn’t being done to help them”.

The letter highlighted examples of good practice within the sector, including York University, which will review the performance of student cohorts against previous years, and Leeds University, which is removing penalties for late submissions.

Other universities have changed exam guidance and allowances this year, in light of the disruption, although not all were mentioned in the SU letter.

The University of Bristol has, for example, “widened the definition of an extenuating circumstance or a reason to permit an extension to a coursework deadline to include Covid-related circumstances” and relaxed the requirements for evidence “in some circumstances”, such as “coronavirus-related disruptions such as having to self-isolate”.

UCL allows students to self-certify for extenuating circumstances in Covid-related situations for up to 14-days at a time on two occasions.

In a note on its website, UCL explained: “Our experience over the summer showed that blanket changes to classifications were not necessary, and that all of the other measures which UCL put in place provided the right amount of support for students during the emergency period. As the pandemic continues, we know that students are being affected in very different ways – you might be happy with how your studies are progressing or you might be struggling to keep on top of your work. Rather than apply mass adjustments which some students might not need, we are focusing our support on those students who need help.”

The letter was signed by the students’ unions, guilds and associations of the universities of Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol, UCL, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, Imperial, King’s, Leeds, Liverpool, London School of Economics, Queen Mary, Sheffield, Southampton, York, Warwick, Manchester, Nottingham, Oxford and Queen’s.

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