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The University needs to reimplement the safety-net system

Without it, the effects of unfair working conditions and stress-induced studying could be felt disproportionately across the student population.

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In April, the University of York introduced a new ‘safety net’ system as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The purpose of this system was to insure the lowest possible mark of a student’s final grade in advance, providing no modules are failed.

However, the University has recently voiced their reluctance to implement another safety net for the 2020/21 cycle. Following the incident, YUSU’s Working Class and Social Mobility group has launched a petition to appeal for the system to be reintroduced. The responsible officers, also authors of the petition, reason that the current final years are perhaps the most affected by the pandemic due to two years worth of results to be evaluated. You can sign the petition here.

Although the petition above is mainly aimed at third years, it is undeniably agreeable that all years alike have been faced with great hindrance, both academic and mental, since the pandemic started. Not only have the students been robbed of ‘normal’ university experiences, but they have also persistently reported their dissatisfaction with online teaching and thereby indicating a drastic decline in teaching standards. So when Vice Chancellor Charlie Jeffery made a bold assumption that students are ‘getting a good experience online’ (resulting with eighty percent of students disagreeing), it is easy to believe that the students do not have full sympathy from the University.

Unfortunately, York is not the only institution hesitant to reintroduce the safety net; students from Surrey and Newcastle, amongst others, have also launched a campaign to bring back the system after their universities have expressed their reluctance.

Granted, it’s difficult to propose a satisfactory policy to mitigate the effects of the pandemic and having to update it so frequently in sync with the government rules (although, this is yet another reason for difficulty in pitching academic proposals). However, I find it strange that the University has not reasoned their reluctance on the matter. Of course, it is obviously better to have the insurance system in place than not having one at all, so why should students be in agreement with the University’s decision?

As mentioned, the decline in teaching quality and its limits largely contributes to the reason why the University should rethink their statement. Contrary to VC Jeffery’s blinkered view (or denial?) of the current teaching standards, the students are clearly being compromised to no ends: unreliable office hours, difficulty sourcing primary resources for projects, limits and the strain of online teaching. So, whether in form of a safety net or with increased leniency in marking, forgiveness in steps of grading is absolutely crucial, and should reflect the current exceptional circumstances.

Some students have voiced support for the University’s decision, stating that the decision may have been determined to prevent a sudden surge or higher grades, or that the students could become less productive due to the reassurance that the safety offers. These would have been credible explanations if it weren’t for the pandemic. Our working environments are far from normal. Even if the situation  stabilises, the University cannot hold the expectation for students to have the same mental, psychological and academic capacity as they did pre-pandemic. Further, if the first run of the safety-net proved anything, it’s that students didn’t slacken but were just relieved of additional stress that burdens us from surviving the year.

With yet another loosening of rules for Christmas, the potential surge of cases means that we are facing yet another impending closure of university facilities and restricting academic regulations.  The replenishment of a safety-net holds great importance in terms of prioritising one’s mental and emotional sense and helps unload the pressure of working in a pandemic. With students’ mental health declining rapidly, our attempt to balance this with academia leads us to burn our candles at both ends. If these past nine months have taught us anything, it is that we cannot and should not rush back to “normal”. Our lives and sanity must be prioritised over productivity. We are still struggling to adapt, and the University should act with pragmatism rather than insisting on normality.

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