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University announces plans for review of mitigating circumstances policy

Oxford University has announced plans for a review of their mitigating circumstances policy and process this academic year. 

A spokesperson from the University told Cherwell: “The University’s Taught Degrees Panel is due to consider in Michaelmas Term plans for a review of the MCE policy and process. This will involve consultation with all stakeholders including student representatives.” 

Following the publication of a Cherwell investigation which outlined students’ concerns about the process, the spokesperson said that under the current policy for considering notices, “exam boards only have a limited range of options available to them at results stage”.

“It is natural for students to be disappointed when they do not achieve the grades that they had hoped, and the University has sympathy for anyone currently in that position”, they said. 

Students from across the University have continued to share their experiences of submitting mitigating circumstances applications as well as their opinions on how issues with the process can be addressed. 

David Tritsch, a recent PPE graduate, noted how finalists could be forgiven for questioning how “well intentioned” the University’s mitigating circumstances policy was this year but that “there is only so much examiners can do when confronted with a framework that was never designed for a global pandemic”. 

He said students were “disproportionately punished for factors out of their control” and that through their handling of this year’s applications, the University has proven “it is more interested in appeasing the grade inflation hawks among its governing body than offering a genuinely level playing field”. 

However, he concluded that “the damage to an entire cohort of young graduates is done” and added: “The only way to undo some of it is for universities and employers to understand that exams this year were not a genuine reflection of students’ potential. There will be no one size fits all response to this across institutions, but some options could include longer interview shortlists for companies or increased emphasis on writing samples and admissions tests for graduate admissions offices.

“Above all, Oxford needs to acknowledge that it has failed the class of 2021 and fundamentally reassess its priorities if it wants bright students from across the world to continue to put their trust in the system to give them a fair shot.”

A 4th year biologist who submitted a mitigating circumstances notice following the bereavement of an immediate family member, described the application as “impersonal and detached”: “The whole process has this stigma and atmosphere that you are trying to prove you are not lying or making it up.”

She said her tutors and department have been “fantastic and supportive” but thinks there are core issues with the policy at University level, including how opaque the system is, how distressing it is to write and the lack of support given to students. She added that the system is not built for mental health issues and there are a confusing range of outcomes to the application. 

Debora Krut, a second year Spanish student, described completing the application form as a “painful experience”: “I had to describe my mental state after brain tumour treatment. So it stung when I was told in two blunt sentences that nothing had come from my form.”

She said the University needs to make clear how the process works: “There needs to be more transparency about just how much mitigating circumstances will cover, because this ambiguity really makes people lose faith in a system that is meant to support them.”

Safa Sadozai, Oxford SU Vice President for Access and Academic Affairs, told Cherwell: “Many students are disappointed with the lack of adjustment made to their classifications this year, despite assurances that college approval and independent evidence would not be required for approval, as well as the insistence of departments and tutors that this year’s MCE policy would make up for the lack of a safety net, which numerous other universities and faculties across the country adopted.

“The [Sabbatical Officers] and I are working hard on fairer assessment standards this year and this issue will remain my priority. I have been working with the VP for Graduates (Devika) and the VP for Welfare and Equal Opportunities (Keisha Asare) to make sure we can come up with a policy that will be implemented at both undergrad and postgrad levels, as well as across the divisions. It is important to me that the grades students get in 2022 accurately reflect the challenges they’ve faced throughout the pandemic and how this has affected all of our learning and assessments.” 

Image Credit: Ham / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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