The impact of Covid-19 on university students has been overlooked by both government and the media throughout the pandemic. Neither has support been received from the governing bodies of Higher Education institutions, in terms of either policy or financial relief. Where students have been mentioned by the media, it has only been to blame them for the spread of the virus after they travelled to their universities – which they did on government advice. Issues surrounding paying full tuition fees (despite drastically reduced teaching time and access to resources/facilities) and rent rebates (for accommodation to which we are forbidden to return) are hot topics, as students feel that universities are not honouring the spirit of the contract entered into for £9,250 per year. Consequently, the student population is now campaigning for the same financial support that almost every other sector has received.
When commenting on this financial burden, the responses received range from ‘We are paying our golf membership that we cannot use. Same thing!!’ or ‘We cannot visit our second home so our mortgage should be refunded?’ The habitual ‘welcome to the real world’ levelled at students belies the fact that student accommodation is fundamental to attending university, not an optional extra. This belittlement of an entire portion of society needs to stop. The student population represents a generation feeling abandoned by government and their own institutions, the damage from which will be felt for years to come as thousands graduate with both education and degree classifications impacted.
The most pressing issue is the lack of adequate academic support. Students have had teaching time cut, resulting in increased independent learning responsibilities and drastically reduced access to facilities, particularly as many are stuck at home. They have had to learn how to achieve under current new methods of assessment. Final year students are writing dissertations or research projects – their most heavily weighted contribution to their final grade – without full access to either the specialist resources or staff on which they would normally rely. It is not just our grades which will suffer but our futures – access to jobs and further study being so dependent on degree classifications.
We appreciate that fee refunds could result in substantial job losses (which would alienate academic staff who are potentially our strongest allies in obtaining academic mitigation). However, the responsibility for the financial viability of universities should not fall to students. In deciding to study for a degree, students knowingly take on substantial debt but expect academic support as part of the package.
Despite these difficulties, many (including myself) want to emphasise our gratitude to the academic staff who have worked tirelessly to adapt. Our intention is not to place blame on staff who we know are also having to adapt to new ways of delivering teaching. Rather, we wish to highlight our vulnerability in the face of the circumstance in which we find ourselves.
Universities have a duty of care to their students which they are neglecting. Only a small – but growing – list of universities have so far implemented protective policies to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Protective policies allow students to shift weighting from third/final year work (usually worth 66.66 per cent) to second year (usually 33.33 per cent) depending where they performed better. My university – the University of Exeter – is not among them, which is particularly disappointing given that they pioneered the ‘no-detriment’ policy last year, designed to ensure students were not adversely affected – a move later adopted by the majority of institutions. This year presents another opportunity for them to be at the forefront of protecting their ‘customers’ through innovative policies. Alas, they are stubbornly resisting appeals to do this, a position supported by the majority of the Russell Group of elite universities. Universities resisting these policies argue that, as this whole academic year falls during the pandemic, there is no data to make an algorithm for a benchmark this year. However, by stating that there is no viable data, are they not conceding that this academic year’s results have been impacted?
In November, I wrote an open letter, endorsed by more than 2,000 signatories, asking the university to introduce academic mitigation. It refused, citing the need to preserve its reputation as the apparent main concern, and that extensions or deferrals constitute sufficient protection. This ignores issues such as international students on time-limited visas and those holding conditional graduate jobs or higher education offers.
As a result, I co-founded the group ‘Students for Academic Mitigation’ and launched a national campaign for academic mitigation across UK universities, with the goal of ensuring that students enter the job and further education markets on an equal footing. Our petition currently stands at 16,000 signatures.
I contest the argument that mitigation policies would damage Exeter’s reputation and integrity. The academic standards upon which the university’s reputation rests relate to the times and teaching environment in which they were achieved. Adjusting academic standards in line with current circumstances is not only the fairest course of action but does not jeopardise Exeter’s – or any university’s – reputation. It simply renders qualifications achieved in the current circumstances equivalent to those achieved in ‘normal’ times. Exeter is proposing to scale current students to previous years using historical data. We all witnessed the injustices that come with scaling results with last year’s A-level fiasco and the government U-turn that followed. How can we feel confident about this approach? It’s worth nothing that last year’s cohort did get a no-detriment policy even though only fewer weeks of teaching were affected.
In the grand scheme of things, student demands are modest; we are simply asking to have the disruption of the pandemic taken into account when we are assessed. We hope our universities and the Higher Education governing bodies will hear our voice.