It's been more than two weeks since a disastrous A-Level Results Day and yet the fallout continues. Almost 40% of predicted grades were downgraded due to a flawed algorithm introduced when student exams were canceled during the Covid-19 lockdown. Four days later, after much public outcry, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that the results would instead be based on teachers' own assessments. Many students who got their grades after the U-turn have lost their 2020 study places.
"It was just a complete mess," says Larissa Kennedy, the new president of the National Union of Students (NUS). “The government has dug itself in, even though we and many others in the industry announced months ago that this would happen. Gavin Williamson should have accepted the serious mistake much earlier and admitted that it was completely unfair. "
Some students were worse affected by the mistake than others. Those with disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to be demoted, while private students received more than twice as many A and A * grades as comprehensive schools. Kennedy says she is concerned about the long-term impact of this unfair system on the next generation. "It affects who chose which places, who had to choose another university, who was forced to procrastinate." And it will affect the demographics of our universities. The fact that this was based on last year's results has shown how education reproduces inequality. "
Larissa Kennedy. Photo: NUS press office
Then there are those students who are still in limbo despite the U-turn. Many B-Tec students have not yet received their scores, while external candidates - such as home-schooled students - have not received grades. "We have to regulate the appeal process and the withdrawal process and use them freely," she says.
Kennedy may be only 22 years old, but she's had six years of grassroots activism behind her. She started out as a 16-year-old girl leader and campaigned for sexual harassment in schools. She suspended her political, international, and Hispanic studies to become a Student Union Officer at Warwick University. She was also president of the Anti-Racism Society. During this time, she became interested in "how misogyny, racism, classicism and other forms of oppression are reproduced by the education system" - which is more evident than ever during the Covid-19 crisis, she says.
In the few weeks since she became head of the NUS, which represents seven million students, her work has been shaped by problems surrounding the coronavirus. Students will return to campus next month, where universities will set their own security measures. For example, some will run Covid testing programs, while most have promised to teach both in person and online. "A real concern is that we cannot trust universities to put the safety of students and staff first because they are too preoccupied with their position in the marketplace," said Kennedy, citing a recent report by the Independent Sage Committee, which recommended that universities teach online by default to avoid the virus spreading.
"They commit themselves to personal lessons that they have not necessarily thought through for safety reasons, because they are in competition with other institutions. Immune-weakened students and disabled students are again struck off the conversation, and of course their colleagues."
As the NIS approaches its 100th year, Kennedy looks forward to her tenure. But she inherits an organization that has had problems with low turnout and near financial collapse in recent years. She wants to work towards “a new NUS”, she says.
What does she mean by that? "We've been running a whole bunch of campaigns for a long time and I came in and said I want things to be really focused but huge."
You could say Kennedy has no choice but to focus on fewer campaigns, given the cut in NIS staff over the last year - but she is ambitious.
She has two main campaigns: "First and foremost, we need to think about what a fully funded, accessible, democratized education system looks like and what role students play in it," she says.
Her other priority, she says, is decolonizing universities - tackling the prejudices that discriminate against black and ethnic students and minority workers. This theme made headlines this year, for example with the revival of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford University. After five years of student campaigning, Oriel College finally agreed to remove its statue of the Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
Kennedy acknowledges this advance but worries that the movement will be watered down. "Although it has become more prominent, we have seen people use the language of decolonization when they are actually talking about some random diversity scheme that they are executing. I am wary of the way universities say," Oh "Look at us, we're decolonizing" to make something salable. They assume they can adopt the language of decolonization if it really belongs to the grassroots, with students, workers and communities doing the work. "
Her first few weeks on the job were "a wild time," she says. "I'm trying to look for the silver lining. The positive thing I can see is that the students are angry ... Seeing a U-turn of this magnitude in my seventh week as NIS president energized me. I think we definitely will see a more engaged and empowered group of students because they went through this and saw the reality. "
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