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"A safety net by other means" is no safety net at all

Charlie Jeffery’s latest email is a disappointment at best and insulting at worse - students need more support.

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Image Credit: Annie Watson

The University of York has had an interesting approach to helping students during the pandemic. I’m sure that, even though March feels years in the past, we can all remember the stress and uncertainty caused by the university’s delayed reaction to the pandemic. It took a petition created by the then-incoming YUSU President, Patrick O’Donnell, and intense pressure from students to get a safety net implemented. Not only was the University slow in taking the necessary steps to support students in March, but at one point they even suggested that if students were unable to access the necessary equipment to undertake online study that they should take a leave of absence.

In the interest of being fair to the University, once they began to move they did bring in several good measures. While by no means perfect, the original safety net did what it said on the tin and went a way to easing some anxiety caused by the rapid changes happening. The student support fund was also a wonderful introduction and I’m sure many students are grateful for this financial help. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as my patience for the University stretches. As a disabled student I’ve already talked at length about some issues the pandemic heightened here at York, but the last email from Charlie Jeffery really takes the cake.

The ‘safety net’ measures set out in Charlie Jeffery’s email on the 7th are a far cry from the safety net many students relied on last year. Out of the six measures highlighted in the email from the VC, none come near what students could reasonably understand as a ‘safety net’. While I do not envy the people that have to figure out the intricacies of a ‘safety net’ measure, I also don’t think it’s unreasonable for students to be angry about this disappointment - we have been routinely left in the dark, given poorer teaching quality and yet are still expected to carry on as if nothing has changed. Each year group faces their own difficulties at this time - first years having had no university experience unmarred by the pandemic, second years having sat no official exams, and third and fourth years having faced the most disruption to their degree. Yet, the email offers no actual safety net.

Several of the measures set out in the email (including the removal of the requirements for evidence in ECA claims, comparing this cohort against previous years to ensure no detriment and flexible awarding for Post grads) should have remained in place from the last year and restating them now in lieu of a real safety net serves no purpose other than PR. This should not be applauded - it should be the bare minimum support. The reweighting of final year grades for second years and above does seem the most promising measure and is the closest thing to a safety net offered. While slightly confusing at first, the flexibility of the policy is reassuring given the vastly different ways the pandemic has impacted students.

The measure that really worried me, however, was the second: “Adapting our approach to delivering teaching, learning and assessments online”. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but we have been in a global pandemic since March 2020. We have had the prospect of fully online learning since then. Including this, something which would seem to be the basic principle of delivering a degree program during a pandemic, as a ‘safety net’ measure really worries me. Why does this count as a ‘safety net’ measure? It almost made me laugh to read this as while I agree wholeheartedly that the University’s online teaching and assessment methods need improving, to call it a safety measure is absurd.

Reading this email as a third year was particularly disappointing. Current third and fourth years are in the same position in terms of the amount of exams sat as last year's third and fourth years (with two or three years of exams under their belt respectively). Yet we are in a much more difficult situation with the pandemic. To refuse us an actual safety net puts us at a huge disadvantage. While I understand the reasons for the University’s reluctance in creating separate policies for separate years, it is clearly unfair to give less support to those in their final year in 2021 than those in 2020.

Charlie Jeffery ended the email by saying he hoped these measures lessened students' anxiety. While I don’t pretend to speak for anyone but myself, I can say that aside from temporarily distracting me with the audacity of the University to pass these measures off as a ‘safety net’ in any way, shape or form, my anxiety has gone nowhere. This email only further serves as evidence that students are not truly being listened to, and at a time when the government has all but forgotten we exist, we need our voices heard.

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