Do the Loughborough Safety Nets go far enough?

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Volunteer writer, David Owens, speaks about the concerns many students have in regards to the University’s Safety Nets.

Students have been left concerned by the University’s approach to calculating degree classifications following the publication of the Loughborough Safety Net 2020/21.

On Thursday 10th December, Rachel Thompson, Loughborough University’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Teaching, emailed students to provide further information about the arrangements for study and assessments after the Christmas break. Amongst other key details about examinations, a detailed explanation of the Loughborough Safety Nets for 2020/21 was provided.

In theory, the safety nets are designed to ‘ensure students are not disadvantaged by the impact of the pandemic.’ In the 2019/20 academic year, the safety nets include 4 levels: 

  1. Marks for every module will be reviewed and adjusted if necessary;
  2. Students with mitigating circumstances can have these taken into account;
  3. Overall grades for cohorts will be no lower than in previous years;
  4. Degree outcomes for finalists will be in line with prior performance.

These were ‘used successfully’ in the 2019/20 academic year and were especially important for finalists. Safety Net 4 compared two calculations, one inclusive of 19/20 Semester 2 marks, and one excluding them. The higher was awarded to each student.

The new safety nets for the current 2020/21 year have had small changes to reflect that the University ‘have largely been able to plan in advance for any changes required, and the University’s campuses have been allowed to remain open.’ 

Ana Bilciu, Education Executive Officer for Loughborough Students Union, spoke with us: ‘Recently, we have liaised with University colleagues and have offered our input and advice on the Safety Nets. We were pleased to hear of the return of named Safety Nets, especially given the challenging climate.’

Safety Nets 1-3 remain largely the same, and Ana highlighted: ‘The Safety Nets have been amended, particularly the one relating to Mitigating Circumstances (MC) claims. More specifically, students are now encouraged to submit claims even if they do not have physical/official evidence, which we believe is a very important step forward, although much more is to be done in this space. This conversation will be picked up with LU/LSU colleagues after the break.’

However, some students have noted that even in non-affected years, these procedures still take place. As set out in paragraph 12.2.7 of the Loughborough University Academic Quality Procedures Handbook, scaling of marks may be employed in any given year, ‘to enable the mean mark for a given module to fall within expected ranges. These ranges can be derived from ‘previous student performance over an appropriate time period (e.g. 3-5 years)’ or ‘the range of mean marks in that particular year for all modules taken by a given cohort of students.’ 

This process is regularly employed across the courses at Loughborough – for example, one module in the Department of Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering was scaled drastically in 2017-18, after a series of shortcomings in the lecture series. A student who did not sit the examination component scored 23% due to the use of the scaling. This goes to show that these procedures are effective under ordinary circumstances, but this year, they are no different from what may be expected in any other year. 

In fact, these measures are effective in normal years as the level of teaching quality is maintained across all students. During the pandemic, the teaching quality will vary from student to student, based on the technology available, mental health and many other factors. The measures set out in the safety nets focus on maintaining cohort averages, not on ensuring individual student performance is consistent with their previous years.

A key change to the safety nets is the 4th provision, which still performs two calculations for finalists, but still only varying whether 2019/20 Semester 2 marks are included. This effectively means that the grade will not reflect disruption in 2020/21 Semester 1 & 2. The University’s justification is based on how the University has been able to plan and move teaching sessions and activities online. To implement the change to the Safety Net 4, one can infer that the University assumes it has eliminated all disruption, making this year as normal as any other, a stance that is not shared by most students. 

The use of on-demand and online lectures is a significant change for students, especially those new to the university, or those returning from placements. Studies contest the effect that using online classes has on student performance. The university set out  that they intend to ‘offer every student as much in person delivery as possible, typically between 45-65% of usual in person delivery.’ 

In week 4, Charnwood moved into Tier 2, increasing restrictions on household socialising, before being further impacted by the national lockdown from week 5 to week 9. These measures restricted social interaction and mental wellbeing, further described in an Office for National Statistics survey (available here [5]). More than half of students reported a worsening in their mental health and well-being since the beginning of the autumn term. This has been compounded by slow-starting peer mentor schemes which are taking time to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions, and by the discouragement of family visitors from outside Loughborough, even when in lower tiers.

The number of available study space has been reduced – the library capacity has dropped from a conventional 1,300 to just 450. Examinations have of course been altered to be online, in various forms, but these new formats also are a cause for worry amidst an already chaotic time.

At the end of term, students have been encouraged to travel home within the first 2 weeks of December, further reducing their learning environment and causing more disruption, around weeks filled with deadlines.

Whilst these measures are all inarguably crucial to reducing infection and protecting students and the community, Loughborough University must recognise the full impact they have on student performance, not just dismiss them due to their ability to plan. 

One student that spoke with us said ‘I feel that not enough has been done to account for finalists this year, especially those who were on placement last year, having to readjust to university life whilst also having significant portions moved online. ‘Although the online lectures have been well carried out, there is no way it will not have negatively impacted many people’s grades.’

‘Despite the university’s best efforts, students have been negatively affected, and the safety net does not seem to take into account the impact on an individual’s grades, rather focusing on the entire cohort as one, not ensuring personal averages across entire degrees are maintained.’

Ana Bilciu concluded: ‘If any student is concerned that even after the application of all four Safety Nets their marks will still have been negatively affected, they should speak to their Department/School as soon as possible, to discuss their options and support available. We encourage students to contact lsuadvice@lsu.co.uk for support with putting their claim and evidence together, as well as any other challenges and/or concerns that they may have.’

Thomas Young, Department Student Federation President did not respond when LSU Media asked for a quote in response to these arguments about the safety nets.

 

Featured header image by Christos Alamaniotis.

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