The Students Fighting for a Covid Safety Net

As Covid forces students to pay £9,250 for online learning, and more to line the pockets of landlords, many are organising to ensure grade justice for those disadvantaged – despite the best efforts of university management.

Amid the disruption of the latest lockdown, university students all over the country have expressed their discontent with the way this academic year has been handled.

The hottest topic of debate is the looming question of a safety net. In recognition of the fact that students did not have access to critical library resources or a decent standard of online teaching, and that many lecturers had a reduced ability to provide support while facing their own workloads or home-schooling children, the first lockdown in March saw some universities introduce a safety net, or ‘no detriment policy’, to provide grade security.

Almost a year on, little has changed: buildings are closed, classes take place online, risk of infection for students and their loved ones remains high. The impact of these issues was recognised during the first lockdown, and yet universities up and down the country have failed to provide for students during the second and third. Now, students have mobilised to fight against this failure.

At the University of Leeds, students wrote an open letter to demand a no detriment policy. Leeds is under increasing pressure to provide clarity after Leeds Beckett was the first university in the country to secure a safety net this academic year. With over fifty pages of signatures, the letter makes three demands: 1) the reintroduction of the safety net offered to the graduating class of 2020, 2) a blanket extension on all assignments due up to the start of the second semester—which the university was forced to concede to last week—and 3) an overall reduction in the written workload for both undergraduate and postgraduate students.

When asked about the motivations behind the letter, one of its co-authors, Catheryne Sturgess-Fairbairn, said: ‘We’re both working-class and have disabilities, so we were speaking from personal experience in this. Online learning has failed over and over again, whether down to poor connections, unwillingness of students to contribute to discussions, or pre-recorded lectures essentially removing that sense of collectivism.’ In a Facebook post promoting the letter, she added that this academic year was ‘one of the worst for students in decades.’

On 7 January, after a meeting with Sturgess-Fairbairn and her co-author, Vic Johnson, the University of Leeds sent an email to its students outlining revised conditions for the second semester. These included the introduction of accommodation fee refunds, asymptomatic testing to facilitate a safe return for students, and, critically, a zero-penalties policy for late submission of up to one week.

That might seem like positive progress, but Sturgess-Fairbairn and Johnson expressed disappointment with the way the changes were framed. ‘We feel incredibly disheartened by the university’s response,’ Johnson wrote in a post on the Leeds Students’ Group Facebook page. ‘We can’t help but feel like the bare minimum has been done here, especially in wording it as ‘no late penalties’ rather than as an ‘extension’ so as to presumably discourage students from taking it up.’

Johnson continued: ‘This is not something that was even proposed to us in our meetings […] We also spoke up about people facing time-limited assessments, particularly those who won’t have access to a desk, a quiet workspace, live in crowded multi-generational households, have caring responsibilities, or are disabled.’

Leeds students are not the only group to mobilise. At the University of Glasgow, a petition demanding a safety net has accumulated over three thousand signatures. In an update on 14 January, the university confirmed in an email that it ‘cannot’ reintroduce the no-detriment policy for this year’s cohort of students, citing the emergency nature of the national lockdown in March, the lack of assessments available to evaluate student grades, and individual circumstances.

John Canham, a final-year History and Sociology student, said: ‘All we want for fourth year is a lower standard of dissertation to be expected. For History, it’s been impossible to get access to archives, which are closed and mostly inaccessible online. What are we meant to do?’

At Sheffield, a petition demanding a safety net policy has amassed over six thousand signatures. It states: ‘there is a bigger need for a safety net policy this year […] Students are being compromised from every angle.’ Sheffield graduate Charlea Murphy said: ‘The university is taking advantage of the fact that students can’t organise and protest in their usual ways.’

There are success stories. Bath Spa University has confirmed that it will be introducing a no detriment policy for its undergraduate students, deciding instead to allow marks for the year to be based on the best 80 credits. One recent graduate noted the disappointing lack of provision for postgrads, but acknowledged that it was a start.

Amid the year’s many tragedies, the risk of passing with a 2:2 rather than a 2:1 might seem insignificant. But with graduate joblessness rising, the pressure has increased along with the challenges. The BBC reports that those between 16 and 24 have experienced the largest decline in employment compared with other age groups this year, and April-October saw a record number of redundancies.

Without a safety net, university students run the risk of graduating with a lower degree than anticipated, barring them from competitive positions and putting them at a disadvantage to others who graduated in more ‘precedented’ times – despite leaving university with the same level of debt.

Many students, particularly working-class students from low-income families, are continuing to work part-time jobs in high-risk environments, supermarkets and cafés included, to afford their studies and their rent. Potential exposure to Covid-19 in the workplace translates to isolation, and the impact of this on students’ ability to study is clear. Leeds student Jake Moorman said: ‘I’ve had three periods of isolation, once for having Covid myself, which has prevented me from accessing computer clusters to use essential software for my dissertation.’

Universities have also failed to meet rising demand for mental health support. In a survey conducted by the ONS, 57 percent of students reported a decline in their mental health during the autumn term, and more than one in five reported that their mental health was much worse because of Covid-19.

Leeds is one of many accused of this shortcoming. Anonymous confessions made on the ‘LeedsFess’ Facebook page increasingly include cries for help; one student wrote: ‘The way these marketised unis are dealing with this situation is disgusting. Months of isolation with little guidance of support and sub-par access to facilities has left us all exhausted and increasingly mentally unwell.’

Another commented: ‘absolutely insane that the university will judge work written by one student with their own room, respected privacy… [the same] as one who has to share their bedroom… [and has] limited bandwidth, resources, and no support at all.’ A student with disabilities wrote: ‘Does anyone else just feel forgotten about as a disabled student? We’ve had access to services and support cut massively and the uni has been very unreceptive to comments.’

The response from The Russell Group, representing twenty-four leading UK universities, was similarly disappointing. In a statement released on 7 January, it announced: ‘Our universities are confident that the steps taken this year will ensure all students are given a fair grade. We therefore do not consider that using the same algorithmic approach to provide individual ‘no detriment’ or ‘safety net’ policies, which were introduced by some institutions as an emergency measure at the end of the last academic year, is necessary or appropriate this year.’

Covid-19 has exposed fundamental societal injustices, from job insecurity to the poor treatment of retail workers. Students have paid £9,250 for entirely online learning, and more to line the pockets of private landlords. They have been forced into isolation after halls and campuses became Covid breeding grounds, and throughout, they’ve been expected to produce the same quality of work. With an increasing average of 50,000 positive cases per day, the situation, for now, appears set to worsen.