‘No Detriment’ vs ‘Academic Safety Net’: between a rock and a hard place?

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Just three days after the third national lockdown was announced at the start of January, I was sent an email from my department reminding us of the summative essay due in just over a week’s time.

There was zero acknowledgement of how the latest announcement would impact many students’ ability to complete the essay, with many still stuck at home, without access to the library, their normal study spaces, or their peers. Although it was meant purely as an administrative reminder, the email felt at best apathetic, and at worst, downright neglectful.

Durham has recently announced its ‘Academic Safety Net’ policy, intended to remedy the impact of these same adverse circumstances that still felt unacknowledged at the start of Epiphany Term. It is a long-awaited recognition of the impact of Covid-19 on our education and our ability to perform in coursework and exams, but does it go far enough? And how does it compare to last year’s policy of ‘No Detriment’?

The new policy should have been enacted from the very start of this year

The most reassuring part of the ‘Academic Safety Net’ is how it seeks to redress the impact of the pandemic on an individual basis. For dissertations and major projects, students will be able to submit an academic impact statement, where they can detail any academic issues which may have impacted their performance.

Any student who drops five or more marks from their previous year’s grades will be automatically considered for review under the Board of Examiners. And finalists who miss a degree-classification boundary by two marks or fewer will also be automatically considered for promotion to a higher degree.

This individualised approach is in complete contrast with last year’s ‘No Detriment’ policy, and it is much improved for it. Last year saw a standardised algorithm which ensured that students’ marks could be no lower than their pre-pandemic grades.

Whilst it provided reassurance for those with high grade averages already in the bag, for those with majority end-of-year assessments, the policy could not sufficiently account for the challenging circumstances in which they then had to undertake those crucial final exams.

At the start of January Russell Group announced that there would be no ‘No Detriment’ policy this year across all their UK universities (a move which triggered widespread outrage, including a petition from a Durham student which has since received over 2000 signatures). However, as the Russell Group explained, the algorithmic approach was neither “necessary [nor] appropriate this year”. Many of the current cohort of undergraduates at Durham and beyond have no pre-pandemic grades, therefore there is no benchmark by which to assess their performance in this year’s assessment.

In this respect the ‘Academic Safety Net’ far surpasses the ‘No Detriment’ policy, but this new policy should have come much sooner. Whilst no one could have predicted the sheer level of disruption this year, with two national lockdowns in the space of three months (and here’s hoping this is the last), a significant degree of academic disruption was always predictable. The ‘No Detriment Policy’ was forged in the profoundly uncertain early stages of the pandemic; the ‘Academic Safety Net’ should have been enacted from the very start of this year. 

Readjusted grades can never fully make up for the academic isolation and utter loss of social contact

The safety net includes crucial provisions for the deferral of exams and for essay extensions in future, but these have only been announced over halfway through the academic year. Whilst deadline extensions have been accessible, there has been no universal allowance for the delays and disruptions to submitting summative assessment thus far.

And although the safety net will go some of the way to redress the educational imbalances of this past year, sadly readjusted grades and extended deadlines can never fully make up for the academic isolation, the utter loss of social contact, and the detrimental impact on productivity engendered by the pandemic.

The Russell Group’s real error was announcing that there would be no ‘No Detriment’ policy before individual universities had laid out their plans to redress Covid-19’s impact on students’ academic capacity. But as Durham’s safety-net policy goes, it is as nuanced and far-reaching as is possible in the current circumstances, aiming to remedy the complex repercussions for higher education this year.  

Photograph: James Tillotson.

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