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Editorial

The Student on ‘no detriment’ and why it matters

Quicker than you can say ‘click and collect’, the start to 2021 has demonstrated that the one thing the University of Edinburgh does indisputably well is to complicate the lives of its students. Granted, the administration does have enough common sense to toss a few policies of appeasement into the mix. As of 11 January, students in university accommodation are eligible to apply for a ‘rent pause’, thereby giving them a rebate on the payment they will make in April or May. Likewise, the university continues to stress the counselling, personal tutor appointments, and academic/student support available to students in regular emails sent by the administration’s frontman, Professor Colm Harmon. 

Yet its recent rejection of a ‘no detriment’ policy has both surprised and angered many students, particularly those in their fourth year of study. According to the university’s logic, last year’s ‘help not hinder’ policy constituted an “emergency measure”, one that, were it to be implemented again, could devalue the degrees it awards. This comes on the back of the Russell Group’s statement that while universities appreciated the difficulties faced by students, they also felt the need to “protect academic standards.” 

Its rejection seems, therefore, to ignore student experiences of the past year and prioritise the university’s future reputation instead. The reality is that such a stance stains its present reputation in the eyes of current and prospective students, which carries at least a sort of poetic justice. Regardless, what the university’s argument presumes is that the past semester, and indeed most of the semester to come, differs from the summer term of 2020. It supposes that we have truly arrived at the ‘new normal’ and so it is time our achievements went back to being evaluated by normal standards. 

To most of us, however, the quality of online learning both last winter and this January was lacking at best and non-existent at worst. Lecturers have delivered their best under the circumstances, but it is an open secret that online or ‘hybrid’ learning is no match for full in-person teaching. Even when that was a tutorial in an office cubicle in the Old Medical School. My flatmates and I went from being encouraged to attend all lectures in our first year, with the claim that recorded lectures were a poor substitute for the real thing, to being told recorded lectures were the real thing in our final year, an irony entirely lost on our university executive. Live online seminars, that is those taking place online in real time and created to bridge the gap between pre-recorded and live content, are not a panaceum for such qualitative differences.

Many of us find ourselves at home, in the UK or overseas, obediently waiting to return to Edinburgh once on-campus teaching resumes. Quality here is therefore further lowered by a lack of sufficient work space, poor WiFi, a difference in time zones between Edinburgh and our home location, as well as the absence of on campus resources, such as the library. Schools can offer as many online seminars as they like, but we cannot pretend that we are receiving the same experience and opportunities as in previous years. 

Given such circumstances, why is a no detriment policy seen as a gateway to the lowering of academic standards? Academic standards have already been lowered, and if the university wishes to ensure the value of its degrees, it ought perhaps to focus more on the quality of courses that it offers and less on the number of firsts that it awards. The Class of 2021 will graduate with three quarters of their Honours modules disrupted by Covid-19. To think that the reinstatement of a no detriment policy will lead to “easy firsts” is thoughtless, since it ignores the mental and physical challenges faced by students, as well as uninformed, since it assumes that subpar learning in the new normal can be assessed by normal means.

Besides being a call for the university to reconsider its position, this is also a reminder of the current difficulties among all students, not merely this year’s finalists. It is all too easy to become numb to such difficulties as we edge ever closer to living a full year under Covid-19 restrictions and to accept what we are given, because we are told all will return to normal in the spring. Yet 2020 showed clearly that there are no guarantees and that months of interrupted learning can shake the foundations of years of education. 

Even if we return to full on campus teaching in March, all of us in our first, second, third and final years will have lost valuable hours along the way. Restrictions are and have been a necessary cost for protecting others, but the decline in quality of our degrees should not become a necessary cost for protecting the university’s standing.

Image: Philip Solovjov via flickr