By Tom Chapman
In March 2020, when I found myself back sitting in my childhood bedroom, without a desk, wondering what was happening to the world – even whether I or loved ones were going to get sick – I thought things could not be any worse for my finals. I would never have imagined that, right now, most students reading this wish they had it so good. 99% of the material I was assessed on was taught face-to-face, nobody I knew got seriously ill from coronavirus, and most importantly, I was covered by a no-detriment policy which gave me the peace of mind to do my best work without being paralysed by stress.
The fact is that not only have current students had a tougher academic life than any other cohort in living memory, but they’ve suffered some of the worst effects of the pandemic on their lives in general. Covid-19 has been a daily reality for students this year, especially those living in colleges, almost all of whom have either caught the disease or had to isolate at least once so far, and with the national situation worse than ever before, it’s becoming more and more absurd to maintain the position that today’s students have it any better than they did in March.
As a JCR President, I see the effects of academic anxiety mixed with social isolation every day. Student mental health has been so seriously damaged that to suggest that grades achieved now are reflective of anyone’s potential is insulting. Online teaching will never be a substitute for face-to-face tuition, especially for practical courses, and with such a bleak existence both in and out of lectures, tapping into the passion and energy which led people to take up their degrees – to get the grades they deserve – is no easy task. The scale of this crisis means that the university needs not just to act, but to act fast. Without it, the university will be failing in its duty of care to prevent an even deeper downward spiral in this mental health crisis.
The pandemic has been tough for everyone, but students are in the unique situation that without full mitigation efforts, the damage done to them this year will be etched into their transcripts for the rest of their lives. This is what makes the Russell Group’s statement on the integrity of degrees so twisted; it would be beyond irresponsible to send students out to compete in the job market – ludicrously competitive as it is – with grades achieved under these conditions, and the poor reflection this would give on the abilities of these graduates is a significantly bigger risk to the integrity of a Durham degree than a no-detriment policy.
I do not wish to diminish the extraordinary effort of staff across the university to adapt to teaching under these conditions, but the bottom line is that a university can only call itself successful if students leave with the grades they had the potential to achieve. A no-detriment policy is the only way to get us on this track.
None of this is said to divert attention from how crucial alternative mitigation measures are; no-strings extensions and SAC forms are the very least the university could do right now, and the students’ union academic officers are doing great work highlighting these alongside the safety net. However, the argument for a no-detriment policy is water-tight: if we deserved it in March, we definitely deserve it now, especially when there are several viable options for applying it logistically. And by this I don’t mean a vague announcement about exploring options for a ‘safety net’, I mean a clear and definite policy, wherein every student knows their benchmark, and everyone knows that they have the freedom to do their best without fearing failure from circumstances which aren’t their fault. Students, after all the suffering faced and yet to come, are owed nothing less.
Image: Mark Norton