Academically motivated, but how?

Students struggle with procrastination. In an ever more digitised age, the task of avoiding distraction seems ever more challenging. 

But still possible. According to best practice, the fightback includes reducing one’s digital exposure, or going on a leisurely stroll to clear the mind of academic jargon. Students are taught to believe that hard work always pays off, that the various distractions of modern life are the enemy of achieving anything truly worthy. 

Worthiness doesn’t mean greatness. The greatest achievements stem from those doing their best, not the best. Employers seek employees who demonstrate not only ability, but also desire. The frameworks of academic study are designed to reward academic success, furthering the opportunity for personal and career growth. In a competitive global context, academic performance has the ability to make or break one’s career. This applies for students at the UEA, but globally too. It still does, and always will.

So then, what happens when standards change? Professor Emma Sutton, Pro-Vice Chancellor for the Student Experience and Education, recently outlined the UEA’s “No Detriment Approach” and “Safety Net” use, “a range of interventions…to ensure that you are not disadvantaged and there are measures in place to support your academic progress”. The policy, widely harnessed by many other universities, takes into account “your best year average…to calculate your degree classification”. 

Not everyone is following suit, after the Russell Group said that the policy wasn’t “necessary” this year. The  response was outrage in the form of a joint letter signed by SU executives from 22 Russell Group universities. Since then, only York has confirmed plans to offer students a safety net covering all levels of academic study. 

The policy at East Anglia also includes a “waiving of evidence requirements” for students seeking extensions for summative submissions, allowing extensions “without the necessity for the provision of any evidence if this is not available.” Third year students with lower average year marks in the 2020/21 academic year will also benefit from the university’s safety net measures. In this way, only the highest average year mark achieved throughout an entire three year period will be used to calculate overall degree classification. 

Yet a key question remains over the extent to which a policy designed to “support” students – “to protect your degree qualification” – is actually having the opposite effect. At a time of limited face to face interactions with academia, the addition of pre examination grading, the relaxation of certain barometers used to measure academic ability, could well further reduce commitment to academic study. 

Presumptive? Despite the policy’s clear exposure to problems of individual motivation, many believe that it does well in addressing the psychological burden created by the pandemic. If the virus hasn’t affected you, the same cannot necessarily be said for your neighbour. With increased financial problems, the inability to access facilities or even unstable internet connection, the enforced virtualisation of our learning impacts students at different times, levels and areas. 

Many still hope that employers will offer upcoming graduates the same opportunities as the previous cohort. Others are skeptical, instead suggesting that such extensive changes risk intensifying competition for post graduate employment, causing so called “grade inflation”. As more students graduate with academic firsts, the ability of employers to differentiate candidates on meritocratic grounds becomes ever more difficult. 

One thing is certain: the standards of academic study are changing as universities respond to the toughening  of COVID-19 restrictions. Many are, and so they should. Today’s graduates face unforeseen challenges. So how, now, do they keep up?

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Sam Gordon Webb

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September 2021
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The University of East Anglia’s official student newspaper. Concrete is in print and online.

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