Over 7500 sign "safety net" petition

Grace Dean discusses the growing pressure on the University to introduce an assessment mitigation policy amid the pandemic.

Grace Dean
2nd April 2020
Over 7500 students at Newcastle have signed a petition to ask the University to introduce a “safety net” mitigation system to alleviate the impacts COVID-19 will have on summer assessments.

UPDATE 7 APRIL: Newcastle introduces safety net policy

Since the Courier reported on Abigail Darby's petition last week, the change.org webpage has been widely shared online and has amassed over 7500 views since going live.

The petitions asks for the University to introduce a similar system to the one announced yesterday by the University of Exeter, whereby all second and third year undergraduates, alongside postgraduate students, who pass their summer assessments will be able to retain their current average grade. If students perform better than their current average then they will be able to use these improved grades. This consequently means that, as long as students pass their summer assessments, they will have either the same average grade for the academic year as they had on 15 March (before teaching and learning was directed to online), or a higher grade.

Since the petition first emerged online on 25 March, other univerisites across the UK have followed Exeter's lead in introducing a similar "safety net" system. Over the course of this week similar policies were announced at both Sheffield and Cambridge Universities. Cambridge University announced that, as long as they pass, the assessments results of final year undergraduate students will “only confirm the class awarded in their second year or improve it”. Unlike Exeter's policy, however, at Cambridge first and second year students will not receive a degree class for their exam results and will receive feedback instead. The University has furthermore announced that there will be a second round of exams for those unable to take the first because of circumstances related to COVID-19. These include illness, caregiving responsibilities, internet and other technical difficult, or a lack of a suitable study environment. Over at Sheffield, "safety net" measures were also introduced after over 6000 signed an online petition which received the backing of the Students' Union's sabbatical officers. Unlike Cambridge University, however, the measures at Sheffield will also include postgraduate students. Discussing the policy, the University's Vice-President for Education said that "any summative assessment completed for the remainder of this academic year can only have a positive impact on your overall mark or degree class." Other universities in the UK that have also followed suit include Southampton, Hertfordshire, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Warwick, who has also introduced a two-week extension on all current coursework.

Citing the reasons why such a scheme should be introduced at Newcastle, creator of the petition Abigail Darby detailed how students no longer have access to practical workshops and full library services, although the University continues to make efforts to ensure students have online access to as many library resources as possible. Darby furthermore states that the Coronavirus outbreak is impacting many students’ mental health, leaving them unable to to complete work to their usual ability.

Darby concludes the petition by stating that: “Considering the exceptional and unexpected circumstances brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic, this type of mitigating system will help to create more equal results for students being assessed at the University. This is because it allows students to achieve a grade which reflects their work under ordinary circumstances, whilst providing an incentive to do well in summer assessments and still giving students who did not achieve their desired grades last semester a chance to improve.”

Students on social media have expressed their support for the petition and their dissatisfaction with the way Newcastle University is currently approaching assessments amid the pandemic. Posts in popular student Facebook groups such as Castle Leazes Ticket Exchange and Newfess have criticised the lack of clear communication from the University.

One final-year English Literature student expressed her annoyance on Facebook: "It’s hard to have a coherent thought about anything right now, let alone write a 10,000 word dissertation and two other lengthy assignments (one of which is worth 100% of my grade for that module). But we are expected to do so, all without having any face to face teaching for almost two months due to strikes and the pandemic, & now no library to access books from or work productively in. Despite the help of some amazing individual tutors we’re all feeling pretty helpless."

One Newcastle student pointed out that this uneven footing may make things more difficult for Newcastle students on the job market, saying: "It would put graduates from other universities at a significant advantage if Newcastle weren’t to implement it."

Second year English Language student Dom Lee said: "I think introducing a safety net would be a lifesaver for a lot of students. The coronavirus pandemic means that we don’t have access to the library and all of its resources. Similarly teaching has been affected by both the pandemic and strike action so in some cases I haven’t had lectures or seminars for certain modules in weeks. Introducing a safety net means that we aren’t being unfairly affected by all of these factors in our assessments. Additionally this measure would go a long way towards protecting students' mental health. In many cases students don’t have the same quiet spaces to work at home and when you have a lot of assignments this can become very stressful. So I think the safety net would also be beneficial in a wellbeing capacity."

Discussing the idea, Education Officer Pablo Charro de la Fuente said: “The rest of the sabbatical officers and I were already working on this policy before the petition was created. We believe it is a fair and supportive policy for the student body during these difficult times. As the petition mentions, if this policy were to be introduced, it would allow the students to achieve a grade which reflects their work under ordinary circumstances. For that reason, we hope that our conversations with the University will be fruitful and that this policy will be followed at Newcastle University.”

Despite this, some first-year students at Newcastle have expressed their annoyance at the petition for excluding them from the "safety net" measures. Some students have taken to arguing on the anonymous Facebook page Newfess about whether first-years should be included in a "no detriment policy", with some arguing that first-year grades are essential when applying for summer internships or placement years, while others reason that most first-year students only need 40% to pass the year and their grades do not usually contribute to their overall degree classification.

A Newcastle University spokesperson said:  "We are aware that a number of universities have introduced special arrangements to ensure that students' final academic year average is the same as, or higher than, the average they have attained to date. 

"We know from the emails we are receiving and the online petition that this is a cause of great anxiety for our students just now and we want to assure you we are listening.  We have developed a Safety Net proposal which will be considered by our Academic Governing body, Senate, and the outcome will be communicated to taught programme students on Tuesday. 

"Above all, throughout this process our priority has been the health and wellbeing of all our students while maintaining the integrity of our degrees.  We want to be absolutely confident that whatever we decide, no student will be academically disadvantaged by the unprecedented circumstances brought about by the coronavirus."

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AUTHOR: Grace Dean
Editor-in-Chief of the Courier 2019/20, News Editor 2018/19, writer since 2016 and German & Business graduate. I've written for all of our sections, but particularly enjoy writing breaking news and data-based investigative pieces. Best known in the office for making tea and blasting out James Blunt. Twitter: @graceldean

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