Just a list of reasons why Cambridge should give us a safety net this year

I mean, I shouldn’t be having to write this article, but here we are

If you’re reading this, you’ll have seen the news that Cambridge will not be offering a “safety net” policy this year. That’s right, a university spokesperson told The Cambridge Tab that because last year’s results were based on summative assessments, it would not be “appropriate” to repeat such a feat this year. If you missed the news and want to read what the uni said, you can find the statement, here.

Last year, Cambridge gave a safety net to all students taking exams, so they could not receive a grade lower than what they attained last year. Now, because of these “summative assessments” that have taken previous grades into account, the Russell Group has suggested that no detriment policies are not necessary. They believe that online teaching has meant that students can continue to study despite pandemic-related disruptions, and that safety nets aren’t practical because pre-pandemic benchmarks are not available for many students, i.e. first and second years.

(Credit: Camfess via Facebook)

Despite these suggestions, I for one am still convinced the university needs to give us a safety net, and they need to do it now. In the extremely unlikely event that Graham Virgo reads The Tab, I’ll just lay out some of my flawless reasoning in this (not so) little list:

1. In many ways, this year has been WORSE for students than last year

The Russell Group has said that last year’s safety nets were implemented by universities as an “emergency measure”, but I mean, are we not still going through a national emergency? As far as our education is concerned, not only has Lent term teaching been moved online, but students have been told to stay home and away from their Colleges.

Whilst none of us could have predicted that Easter term last year would happen the way it did, and finalists especially deserved their no detriment policy, this year has arguably been more disruptive than theirs. Last year’s finalists were at least able to complete their Lent term teaching and have a relatively normal year. Let’s not forget that Girton Spring ball went ahead guys.

This year, students have had practically no social lives, managed four weeks of lockdown during Michaelmas, and have been doing lectures and some supervisions online since the start of the year. Now, I accept that this means staff have worked much harder, and I appreciate that, but has Cambridge considered that this year has been MUCH harder for us as well?

The expectation for “academic rigour” should surely take into account that we’ve all been putting a shift in to overcome the obstacles of this year.

Cambridge safety net

(Credit: Camfess via Facebook)


2. Since when has Cambridge cared about blending in with the Russell Group anyway?

All my life, I’ve been hearing that Oxford and Cambridge are the two top unis in the Russell Group. Even with the pandemic, Cambridge has been a pioneering institution, opening a lab to help with government testing and starting its own unique asymptomatic testing scheme for students.

Now, this is just a thought, but it might be nice if they decided to put all that innovation towards a shiny new no detriment policy as well. Dare I say, if we don’t, then Oxf*rd might beat to us it. And we can’t be having that now, can we?

(Credit: Camfess via Facebook)


3. Other unis are still doing it!!! Hello???

Despite the Russell Group’s statement, York, a Russell Group university has issued a safety net to mitigate the challenges of the new lockdown for students. SOAS, Greenwich, and Leeds Beckett will also be introducing no detriment policies. Now, I’m not saying that a Cambridge degree is more difficult than a Leeds Beckett one and therefore should definitely have a safety net, but come on.

3. STEM students are missing vital contact hours

I’m aware that as an English student I’m really running my mouth about an issue that may have very few personal implications for me – the last exam I sat was almost two years ago. With that in mind, however, let’s all appreciate that Natscis and Medics are really struggling and deserve a no detriment policy.

With the university’s clarification that only clinical Medics and Vets can return, Part I and II students are missing out on labs, dissections, and practicals. Plus, they’ve been dealing with disruptions to these in-person contact hours since the second lockdown. If these sessions would have been compulsory in a normal year, then why should STEM students have to move forward without any sort of compensation this year?

4. Humanities students are missing their books

Cambridge safety net

Before you roll your eyes let me make a case for my fellow humanities students. Our lovely University Library usefully holds all the rare books one can imagine. Sadly, I and many others have not been able to successfully access the rare books reading room all year.

Whilst the uni has been great with adjusting arrangements, starting click and collect services etc., we can’t deny that access to essential materials has been significantly harder for us this year. Let’s also not forget that students moving in and out of isolation have struggled to access books since not everyone is cool with asking their coursemate to trek to the UL and pick up 20 books for them.

Now that students are studying remotely, there are plenty of rare books that Part I and II students need for dissertations that they have no idea how to access. Libraries are being supportive and trying to help provide scanned copies where possible, but is all this faff seriously more valid than just accepting that our learning has been disrupted and accounting for it?

5. The uni can just use grades from our supo reports, right?

So there’s this whole argument that some students, i.e. first and second years, don’t have any previous grades to go off of. But, if A-level students are getting alternative assessments that may be marked internally or include portfolios of previous work, then I don’t see why our previous work shouldn’t be considered as well. Safety net benchmarks could easily be based on supervision reports from previous terms, and that would solve this whole issue.

Also, it’s really not as if no one at the uni has a useable previous grade that can be used for safety net purposes. Last year, HSPS students sat exams that were marked, MMLers were marked on take-home essays, and even subjects like Engineering and History of Art which gave automatic passes still set essays and papers for feedback purposes.

Our supervisors definitely have enough to gauge how well are doing, and it would be a real shame if Cambridge students drastically underperformed in Easter because of completely new and stressful exam circumstances.

6. The ‘integrity’ of my degree is doing just fine, thanks

The perceptive amongst you might have read in the university’s no detriment statement that their decision has been made in the interests of protecting the “quality and integrity of a Cambridge degree.” Subtext: offering a safety net will somehow mean my degree is less impressive.

Here’s a hot take: No it won’t! Cambridge students are currently studying at one of the most academically challenging institutions in the midst of a global health emergency. I think the fact that we are even making it through our education means we’re deserving of a passing grade. If these are truly “unprecedented times”, where is my precedented no detriment policy?

7. The people are asking for one! Do we really need more of a reason than that?

I’m not sure when it became uncool to listen to your students, but universities seem to be hating it right now. Bristol and Southampton are among other unis to shoot down the idea of a no detriment policy, but students haven’t given up on lobbying them.

At Cambridge, it’s no different. English students have written an open letter asking for a safety net similar to last year’s, and a survey taken by linguistics students has shown that students are overwhelmingly in support of a no detriment policy.

Finalist Arthur Roadnight told The Cambridge Tab how Linguistics students have been feeling about exam arrangements:

“The linguistics students – being a small group – have taken time to talk amongst themselves and with their DoSes. From these conversations, it’s pretty clear that the majority of students are facing severe stress that poses a negative effect on their education, and that’s even before the fact that all of our learning for almost a year has been online is taken into account.

“The staff-student liaison officer even took an official survey to see how people were feeling, and found that 65% of the responses reported a negative impact on their learning throughout the pandemic with the rest reporting a neutral response. Of the 23 finalist students, 19 reported that a safety net would be needed to alleviate their concerns of bias in exam results and future applications, three didn’t mention a safety net, and only 1 said that they didn’t feel it was necessary.”

Professor Virgo, if you’re out there, please give the people what they want!

The seven things I hate about u(ni):

Cambridge safety net

(Credit: @thetab via Instagram)

I’ve listed seven reasons, but there are of course so many more. After everything that students have been through this year, we at least deserve to have our argument heard. Whilst, in top-tier Tab fashion, I have laid out these concerns with memes, jokes and just now with a 2008 Miley Cyrus reference, I do hope the uni is aware of the fact that so many students are going to struggle sitting exams this year, be they online, open book, or open web.

The decisions that the university makes about our exams are likely to follow us for the rest of our lives, and I earnestly hope that they are made with careful consideration and compassion.

I’d also like to remind students that Student Minds UK has published a list of tips for dealing with exam stress during the coronavirus pandemic, and the Student space helpline is open 24/7 for anyone with wellbeing or mental health concerns. Cambridge nightline will also be running a reduced, email-only service from the start of term. 


The University Library, University Press office and Linguistics Faculty have been contacted for comment. 

Featured image credit: Libreshot via Public Domain Licence, and Camfess via Facebook

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