Vice Chancellor replies to student’s open letter

Joe Molander on the fallout from the open letter signed by thousands

Joe Molander
9th January 2021
Image: Newcastle University on YouTube
Newcastle University Vice Chancellor Chris Day has written in response to the open letter signed by 4780 Newcastle students and alumni. Amongst other things, Day’s reply addresses the student appetite for a ‘safety net’ for assignments, and explains that the University will not be using one.

The open letter was sent to Day on Wednesday, and outlined several problems that students have faced since the pandemic began. It also detailed the grievances students have with how the University has dealt with them.

In particular, it cited lack of access to facilities, present in-person (PiP) teaching, support from the University and communication from lecturers over seminars.

The open letter also discussed Operation Oak, which sees Northumbria Police patrol student areas with funding from Northumbria and Newcastle Universities. It was expanded this year to cover every night of the week, and is the subject of some controversy amongst students.

The letter recommended a ‘safety net’ policy for the assignments sat this academic year by second and third year undergraduate students. A safety net policy was applied to all students last academic year to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

In reply, Chris Day sent a letter of his own, saying “In common with other Russell Group universities, we will not be using an algorithmic safety net approach this year.”

Day’s letter insists “we do have a range of fair and transparent measures in place to make sure that individual circumstances are taken into account.” Day cites the “automatic seven day extension to coursework and assessment deadlines”, about which students were emailed yesterday.

The open letter also labelled the treatment of students under Operation Oak as “abusive”.

“The organisation known as Operation Oak has been a subject of distress for many students living in Newcastle,” the letter stated. “Students have reported representatives of the Organisation [sic] threatening them, following them to their homes, and attempting to illegally force their way into students’ houses on false claims of Covid-19 [sic] violations.”

Chris Day’s reply assumes that these issues relate to covid marshals, not Operation Oak.

Day’s reply reads “we have been working closely with our partners to raise students’ concerns about the Covid Marshals [sic] and the confusion with our long-running Operation Oak.”

The reply also explains a meeting is taking place between the University, Newcastle City Council and the police on Wednesday 13 January to “agree a positive way forward”.

The open letter ended with three demands: a review of this year’s teaching, a tuition fee reduction and “a thorough investigation into the conduct of Operation Oak”. Day’s letter makes no mention of tuition fees.

The Courier spoke to Sarah Mitchell, the Newcastle student who wrote the open letter, both before and after she received a reply. Before she received a reply, she said “I’d like to think with the number of signatures we’ve got, and the support I’ve gotten, they have to change something.”

After she received a reply, she told The Courier she was “a bit disappointed”, and that “it seems like he hardly even read the letter”.

Day’s letter ends “I hope my response goes some way to answering your concerns.”

Concerns and complaints about covid marshals can be emailed to psr@newcastle.gov.uk for investigation.

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AUTHOR: Joe Molander
Head of Current Affairs and co-founder of The Toon Lampoon. Politics, interviews, satire and the Courier's leading authority on frosted tips. @JoeMolander on Twitter and full portfolio available on Muckrack.

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