The Safety Net Will be the Death of Higher Education

It’s time to broaden our concept of no detriment policies and redefine the university experience

I went to university with a clear objective: to get a degree and to get out. Up until this point, any career I had considered would require at least a degree level qualification so this seemed like a practical next step for me. Coming from a small community on the Isle of Man, the chance to move to the UK then spend years working with people my own age from a variety of backgrounds was set to be the pinnacle of my education. However, when COVID-19 hit the headlines it became clear that the party was over. 

With teaching moved online, students holed up in their dorms and the Government weaponizing them as scapegoats – the atmosphere in Universities across the country was sour, to say the least. While GCSEs and A-Levels were cancelled, for some reason known only to the powers that be, degrees did not stop. And so, a no detriment policy was devised to minimise disruption to studies, this became known as the safety net. The safety net enabled grades to be frozen at their pre-COVID standard, allowing for students to only improve the classification of their degrees. This policy was a lifeline for many students and, as this was during the teething stage of virtual learning, it injected enough forgiveness into the University system to get students through the academic year.

One year later, online teaching is the default, and Universities are yet to figure out how to evaluate student performance in a pandemic. The UCU, a major union for lecturers, has made it clear that they will not be satisfied with anything less than fully supported remote work capabilities, and the student counterpart (NUS) is fighting for basic respect in the current climate. Unfortunately, these warring factions are often shelling each other. The issues both lecturers and students face are solvable only by the Universities and the Government. Students in the UK have never fallen silent on the topic of tuition fees and with every day that passes the cries for financial compensation grow only louder. This has too often been interpreted as a criticism of teaching staff at Universities when it is the desire of students to be taught in conditions of mutual benefit. Students and lecturers are pitted against each other in a fight that serves to promote the idea that universities aren’t controlled by a combination of the super-rich and poor government policy. If nothing else, the pandemic has proved the extent to which we have commercialised higher education – this has become a business. The value of a degree is calculated by its classification and awarding body. We put grades above all else, at the expense of education and the safety net is the epitome of this. 

The longer the safety net is used – the bigger the holes in it will become. The significance of this comes down to how long one believes the pandemic will last. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re expecting another few years of these conditions. Well, if that is the case and safety nets are standardised: in a year we will have first, second, and third-year students with no official pre-COVID grades. At this point, the necessity for alternative assessment methods would be dire and this would also be the first time they are widely implemented. In the case of large organisational structures, it often happens that it takes time to finesse a new scheme – so why would we want that to happen when, should it fail, it will be too late for many students. Should adjustment to the ‘new normal’ be dragged out, it will not serve to assist those in immediate need. The 2020 safety net was a novelty and a necessity but going forward it sets a dangerous precedent.

The safety net is a type of no detriment policy – it is not the no detriment policy. A no detriment policy is designed to negate ‘disruption’ to studies and when put into practice this can take many forms. There are plenty of ways to formulate such policies, it is just a case of throwing out the rule book. There is very little to stop Universities lowering their grade boundaries, grading on a curve, or introducing a European-style approach to exam resits whereby they are systematically encouraged. It is worth remembering that this is new territory in higher education. The ability to appeal results and apply for consideration under the guise of ‘extenuating circumstances’ is standard practice, but this scale of disruption was never anticipated.

In spite of this, some universities have already decided to reintroduce the safety net, thousands of students have been told that they have secured 1st and upper 2nd class degrees (as 79% of UK students do) with six months to go until graduation. These universities have fulfilled their purpose in creating ‘employable and highly qualified’ individuals. Because – once more for the people in the back – the value of a degree is equated to the grade and the institution that granted it,  not the quality of education. Much of the teaching on degree programs is dependent on co-operative work which comes in many forms, from seminars to presentations, meaning that there is a level of necessary peer-support within cohorts. Given that teaching is going ahead regardless of the policy reintroduction, it is hardly plausible to say motivation will remain. And the students who will lose out most are the ones who needed to improve their grades in the first place.

Students who were not at their best pre-COVID have been left out of the conversation. Universities have infamously fostered dire mental health diagnoses over the last decade, which has only been exacerbated by recent events. A recent survey conducted by the NUS found that 52% of students say their mental health is worse than it was before the pandemic. If a student was struggling to get through before the pandemic, how can they be expected to do better under these conditions and why should they be branded forever with the grades they attained prior?

The National Union of Students is calling on Universities and the Government to recognise that students deserve better and groups such as Students For Academic Mitigation are taking matters into their own hands and rallying their peers. Going forward, this kind of activism could revive an ailing higher education industry but at this very moment, we must be careful what we are asking for. The call for a safety net is symptomatic of how little we expect from institutions for which we are forking out the highest fees ever. Students should be demanding much more. This is not the time for compromise, it is our chance to redefine higher education on the terms of those involved in it. 

There is no simple fix to the situation we find ourselves in – higher education must undergo drastic and meaningful change, or die trying. The Department for Education was set to issue an update to Universities on the 18th to refine their plan going forward. Without acknowledgement of the decline in the quality of education over the last year, their words will be wasted – this is a sink or swim moment, and millions of students are looking for a reason not to jump-ship.

Words by Catherine Woolley

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