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Vice-Chancellor, we need this safety net

Patrick Walker on how unprecedented circumstances warrant an unprecedented solution.

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It hasn’t been long, but once again, York seems to be going viral again for all the wrong reasons. Just two months after York’s library ended up on Reddit after trying to reunite a lost bra with its owner, a Tweet criticising York’s treatment of students lacking a laptop hit 11,000 retweets and nearly 60,000 likes on Twitter.

It highlighted a web page, that asked students “unable to source” laptops themselves for remote work to “suspend their studies, and take a leave of absence”. The page has since been altered with more information, but in that moment, the University, it seemed, was asking students to just stop being poor.

The tweet drew attention to a serious issue with the University’s policy of continuing assessments: for those with poor internet, or lacklustre computers, the coming summer term is going to be extremely tough. With the vast majority of students locked down at home, the likelihood of any of us doing our best work is shrinking, with many of us only now understanding quite how much we could miss going to the library.

For many, continuing assessments is still not enough: many universities have made the tough choice to cancel exams, but I think it's reasonable to expect students to take assessments where they can: doing so is extremely important to maintain the University's academic credibility.

With this context in mind, the Vice-Chancellor Charlie Jeffery’s latest coronavirus update on Friday was extremely promising. The update hinted at implementation of Exeter’s ‘safety net’ system, where students were promised that their grade would not dip below whatever they had obtained before the 15 March. The net essentially eliminated the impact of the coronavirus on students’ studies, ensuring that poorer students without access to computers, or those in rural areas who didn’t have good broadband, would not be penalised. It’s exactly the sort of thing York’s final-year students need.

For one thing, even if students are in possession of a good computer and broadband connection, many of us still have dissertations that need constant access to the library. Most humanities students are still performing literature reviews, and many of the texts that we need are only available in the physical section of the library: we simply can’t rely on online options, that are often dubiously legal, and have half their pages missing. For thos in the sciences faculties, many will undoubtedly have issues completing more practical work that requires professional software on campus, or equipment in labs.

Then, of course, there’s the intangible impact that being at home, or being isolated in a student house has. Less exercise, annoying siblings, and tragically limited Deliveroo selection have all contributed to a rubbish work environment this week, and all these factors only look like they’re going to worsen as our lockdown rolls on. Without a safety net, York students are going to find themselves being punished for being responsible citizens: staying at home could very well cost us our degrees.

Implementing mitigating circumstances for those without access to these utilities isn’t enough. If its coronavirus policies reflect past decisions, the University is likely to prefer simply to extend deadlines for work. This will hamstring final year students by stopping them from graduating on time: a serious issue for those trying to find work or future study in a job marketplace already wrecked by coronavirus.

Today, a post by YUSU Academic Officer Giang Anh confirmed that York is developing a safety net “heavily informed” by the Exeter model. Let us hope that is sufficient to give York’s third-year students the support we need. After losing several weeks each academic year to strikes, I think we deserve it.

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