University announces new Safety Net policy for the 2020/21 academic year

The new policy consists of six measures and is intended to minimise the impact of the pandemic on students’ final grades. Ella Williams reports

Ella Williams
15th January 2021

A set of Safety Net measures for the 2020/21 academic year has been announced by the University, pending approval from Senate, the University’s highest decision-making board, next week.

The policy is intended to recognise the difficulties caused to students’ learning and mental health as a result of the pandemic and minimise the affect on their degree classifications.

After the UK entered lockdown in March last year, a Safety Net Policy preventing Newcastle students from achieving lower than their baseline average grades was announced for the 2019/20 academic year. A petition to implement a similar no-detriment policy for the current year has since amassed over 6000 signatures.

Safety Net 20/21 includes a basket of measures that focus on the individual rather than taking a blanket approach.

Lucy Backhurst, Academic Registrar

This year’s policy does not centre around a baseline average grade, and instead comprises a combination of six different measures. In an email from Academic Registrar Lucy Backhurst announcing the new measures, she describes Safety Net 2020/21 as focusing “on the individual rather than taking a blanket approach.”

She continues: “We believe this approach is better and fairer for all our students and recognises the challenges that all of our students have experienced over the period of the pandemic.”

A blog post released on the Newcastle University website explains that the new Safety Net does not include a baseline average as there are “no assessment outcomes for 2020/21 to provide the basis of a baseline algorithm”. Instead, the announcement cites the importance of “preserving the value of final degree classifications” in designing a Safety Net for the particular context of 2020/21.

In December, the NUSU Education Officer, Sian Dickie and Postgraduate Officer, Charlotte Boulton, announced that they were lobbying the University for a “near miss” policy with regards to this year’s assessments. The proposed policy consisted of nine measures, including some permanent demands for the University.

Earlier this week, they published an email to Suzanne Cholerton, Pro Vice Chancellor for Education at Newcastle University, calling for a York-style Safety Net to be considered alongside their “near miss” measures. In the email they referred to York’s policy of “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.”

In the announcement post, the University takes note of “a small number of Universities” that have introduced algorithms by amending the weighting of years. In response it is explained that the same approach could not be implemented at Newcastle because “we have different approaches to degree weightings across the institution”. As a result, it is suggested that an algorithmic approach would “disadvantage” some students if applied with a “one-size-fits-all approach”.

The NUSU Sabbatical Officers have responded to the announcement of the 2020/21 Safety Net measures, saying that they “welcome the introduction of the Safety Net Policy to support students during these unprecedented times”.

NUSU always fight to support students and we believe this policy will benefit all students in a fair way.

NUSU Sabbatical Officers

They continue: “We are also pleased that our own Near Miss Policy proposals contributed largely to the implementation of the net measures, and that some of these measures will be permanent changes that will benefit students in future years.

“NUSU always fight to support students and we believe this policy will benefit all students in a fair way.

“We know that this policy is broad, as it is designed to encompass the entire taught programme cohort, so we encourage students to reach out for help if they need any further, more specific support via PEC forms, Student Support Plans, our own Student Advice Centre and the University’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Service.”

The Safety Net Measures 2020/21 summarised:

Six different measures make up this year’s Safety Net policy:

1. Moderating 2020-21 grades against the performance of previous years

  • Scaling up marks that are below average based on historic performance
  • Profile marks against against profiles of the last four years. Particular focus for students particularly impacted by the pandemic, such as those with caring responsibilities and Widening Participation students.

2. A revised “sliding scale” policy for late submission of assessments

  • Late work will no longer be capped at 40%.
  • Instead students will lose a set number of marks for each day after the assessment deadline the work is submitted.

3. Final degree classifications allowed more discretion by board of examiners

  • Discretionary zone for reaching a classification boundary to be amended from 2 to 3 marks

4. Steamlined approach to PEC

  • As already agreed, PEC forms do not require supporting evidence for health, bereavement or Covid-19 related issues
  • Unexpected IT errors now also considered valid in PEC forms

5. Reviewed timing of assessment deadlines to prevent “bunching”

  • Amendment in University’s Assessment and Feedback Policy, disallowing the use of single deadline date in any single Semester.
  • Deadlines dates for Semesters 2 and 3 to be reviewed in consultation with the school’s student representatives

6. Increasing the entitlement to resits for taught postgraduate students

  • For postgraduate students, resits are currently limited to 40 credits for masters and diplomas and 20 credits fo PG certs.
  • Conventions to be reviewed to allow one attempt to resit for any failed module for 2020/21 academic year, in line with the current policy for undergraduates.
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