In a joint statement released earlier this month, the Russell Group of universities, of which Imperial is a member, outlined its position on the use of ‘no-detriment’ policies with regard to this year’s exams. The statement says that while the Group recognises that “students have faced and continue to face significant challenges as a result of the ongoing pandemic”, it feels “confident that steps taken will ensure all students are given a fair grade” and so the use of “algorithmic safety net and no-detriment policies” is not appropriate or necessary.
The decision has been met with criticism from students across the 24 member universities, with petitions against the move gathering thousands of signatures at Bristol, Glasgow and King’s. Only one member university has bucked the trend: York has pledged to introduce certain measures for the year, albeit in a different way to last year. Rather than computing a “safety net score” based on previous achievement for each student, the University has made it easier to apply for mitigating circumstances, increased the number of retakes available to students, and introduced an “alternative year weighting” which minimises the effect of students’ 2020/2021 performance on their degrees if appropriate.
As justifications for the decision, the Group has cited a lack of pre-pandemic data for the calibration of any algorithms, and a more robustly designed “blended learning” system than was available last year. It has also emphasised the importance of “maintaining the integrity of [their] degrees”, perhaps insinuating that students may be having it too easy with open book examinations.
Closer to home, the news has not been welcomed by students at Imperial, many of whom feel let down in the face of the continuing effects of the pandemic. In a conversation with Felix, the Union explained that more could be done to support students while noting that the “York model” would be unlikely to work at Imperial due to fundamental differences in how degrees are run at the institutions. However, it maintained that it “wants students treated fairly” and went on to outline what it feels would be an appropriate set of measures for the College to put in place. Perhaps most notable of them is the idea of a “cohort-wide safety net” to ensure that results this year don’t fall below the average of previous years, and other points include “special provisions for first years [and] students in different time zones”.
Another important focus is improving application process for mitigating circumstances by lowering or eliminating the burden of proof on students and adopting a kinder approval policy. Related to this would be a generous re-sit policy, through which anyone with mitigating circumstances would be able to re-sit exams with no caps on credit. However, the Union made it clear that such options should be reserved for students who genuinely need them. Deputy President (Education) Michaela Flegrova said that the Union was currently working with College on the above issues, and that though “nothing has been approved at the College level yet [,] we have agreement in principle from some staff on a majority of the points”.
A particular point of contention is the issue of postgraduates. For most courses lasting only one year, making year-based weights adjustments as with undergraduate degrees is impossible. York has decided to apply “more flexible award rules” which were used last year, whereby merits and distinctions are calculated based on the better of either taught or independent study modules.
When asked about their opinions regarding this issue in a Felix survey, while most postgraduate students felt that the College is doing their best to provide high-quality remote education, many of them reported lacking support from their lecturers, not receiving enough feedback on their assessments, and being graded in an unfair manner. They are asking for some measures to be put into place to account for the “added stress” around remote learning, highlighting that the whole experience is “difficult”, especially for students who may not feel comfortable participating via video or those who struggle to contact the staff they need. GSU President Zixiao Wang said that though he supports the proposed policy in principle, he feels more formal feedback from students is necessary before action is taken.
The College has not yet commented independently on the matter, although a spokesperson said that it was “currently in discussion with both staff and student representatives” to ensure that the approach to assessment “is fair, supports our students, and protects the integrity of their hard-earned degrees”. They added that further details would be released in the coming weeks.