A no-detriment policy for assessment is essential

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Durham University is failing to be responsive to students’ concerns. The lack of a no-detriment policy is a reflection of how the university administration is out of touch with the realities of studying during a global pandemic.

The attitude of university policy as we enter a fully online term seems to be much the approach of ‘business as usual’.

This is not business as usual

This is not business as usual. We all face the daily threat of catching Covid-19 and the fear of having to isolate. Regular changes to Covid laws undermine any sense of certainty. Students in particular face a complete lack of structure in our lives. National lockdown has led to isolation and worsening mental health for many young people. This is far from normal.

Specific additional barriers to learning are faced by individuals: many students are working from home and may face a lack of resources and suitable study space. International students have found it particularly difficult to access teaching this year due to travel restrictions. High risk students often had no choice to receive any in-person teaching. The effect of online learning has not been equitable.

This environment is not conducive to focus; expecting students to produce work comparable to previous years is unreasonable. The welfare of students is suffering, and there needs to be recognition of this in assessment policy.

The welfare of students is suffering, and there needs to be recognition of this

During Easter term last year, the University instituted the no-detriment policy because they understood that working conditions were not comparable to previous years. As we enter Epiphany term, working conditions are arguably worse than last year. We yet again face a term of national lockdown, except this time following a year where we have received no normal teaching. Students cannot be expected to produce work at a normal standard.

The absence of mitigation policies can only mean that the university severely underestimates the challenges students face. This has happened because the University is failing to effectively consult with its students, or with its teaching staff.

This lack of accountability is reflective of a trend in Durham University leadership. Last year, there was a failure to listen to staff concerns about pay, pensions and casualisation, leading to a hugely disrupted Epiphany term of strikes. The University further ignored the impact that strikes had on students, refusing to compensate for the loss of teaching.

The failure to carry out consultations regarding the University’s controversial ‘Unbound Education’ plans further illustrate the complete disregard for the opinions of those most effected by university policy. The plans were only dropped after substantial, and very public, resistance from students and staff.

A pattern is developing: the University only listens to student and staff concerns when it is in the interests of the administration. It is only when the public image of Durham University is threatened, or where disruption makes it impossible to continue, that the University fulfils its obligation to be accountable.

The University only listens to its students and staff when it is in the interests of the administration

The lack of accountability is not only bad for students. It leads to decisions that undermine Durham University’s value as a unique and prestigious institution. Much of what makes Durham appealing is the high quality of education and support that the University purports to offer. When the University stops being responsive to its students, this value suffers.

The key responsibility that universities have to its students seems to have been neglected of late, as the commercialisation of higher education leads to universities being run as businesses. Rather than students being seen as individuals to whom the University has a substantial obligation, they are increasingly treated as an instrument of income. Part of this process is the neglection of student concerns unless these issues pose a direct threat to the University’s public image or cash flow. This is simply not good enough.

A no-detriment policy is not just desirable, it is essential

The University needs to actively engage with student concerns and listen to teaching staff. And if they do this, it will become abundantly clear that a no-detriment policy is not just desirable, it is essential.

Image: Bluedreamer2011 via Creative Commons

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