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University of Melbourne reverses WAM policy despite mass petition

A petition conducted by the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Education Department recently called for the extension of Weighted Average Mark (WAM) adjustments for Semester One 2021. However, over 20,000 signatures failed to convince the University to review the importance of the compassionate policy to both domestic and international students.

*NOTE: Since time of writing, the University's WAM policy for Semester 2 2021 has changed. Please see more details here

A petition conducted by the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Education Department recently called for the extension of Weighted Average Mark (WAM) adjustments for Semester One 2021. However, over 20,000 signatures failed to convince the University to review the importance of the compassionate policy to both domestic and international students.

On 15 July, UMSU Education, the Graduate Student Association (GSA) and UMSU International sent out a joint statement via email, updating students on the response from the University:

“Although the University acknowledges that the lockdown disrupted students' learning, the University has unfairly dismissed our call to continue the WAM Adjustment policy in Semester 1, 2021.”

It would later state:

“It is disappointing that the collective voices of over 20,000 students meant so little to the University. On an issue as crucial as this, the University chose to sideline students in their decision-making process.”

Despite a snap lockdown in Melbourne in Week 12 of Semester 1 and ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in many countries, the joint statement directly quoted the University admitting that the changes to WAM policy in 2020 were based on “the transition in teaching delivery services rather than the wellbeing of our students”.

In 2020, UMSU introduced the ‘WAMnesty’ campaign and successfully lobbied for a change in WAM assessment. Under the 2020 WAM policy adjustments, any subject marks that lowered a student’s existing WAM were excluded from calculations and would be flagged on a student’s transcript with a caret (^). Subject marks that improved or maintained a student’s WAM were valid however, and would appear as normal.

Studying online is not yet the new normal. The quality of course delivery, face-to-face social interaction and campus life in general have all suffered with an online-centric university. These are concerns that the students have raised since the first online classes kicked off in March 2020, and with this recent decision they have been newly disregarded.

The unexpected changes hit the academic performance of some students hard in 2020. Mark, a third-year domestic student, received two fails on his 2020 transcript but due to the adjusted calculation, his WAM was not negatively affected. Now he is worried about his grades for Semester 1 this year, when Melbourne entered another lockdown the week before the examination period.

“My WAM [of Semester 2, 2020] was essentially saved, and [I] was hoping that it [the 2021 petition] would pass, given that I was uncertain about the outcome of my exams this semester,” he said.

Mark also raised concerns that future employers may take his WAM into consideration when hiring, which would affect his career pathway:

“People say it's about ‘experience’, whether it be [via] internships or not, but I'm sure WAM does play a part.”

While students generally agree that the safety net of WAM adjustment has somewhat protected them from the unpredictable academic damage of the pandemic, the University’s spokesperson recently argued that the current, un-adjusted policy is adequate. Specifically, they highlighted that preparation, flexibility and existing special consideration for compassionate or compelling circumstances are enough to overcome any student difficulties.

“For 2021, the University worked hard to inform students of subject delivery modes and normal WAM arrangements well before the start of the semester, giving students increased certainty when planning their studies,” said the spokesperson.

“Flexibility has been offered to students wishing to defer their studies, vary their study load, take a leave of absence, or seek support services through virtual channels.”

“Individual students experiencing difficulties receive the support they need and those students who are not experiencing difficulties continue with their studies under normal WAM arrangements.”

However, the joint statement for the WAM adjustments petition published by UMSU also highlights the legislative issues overseas students are facing: they may not be able to access support services provided by the University, such as counselling and telehealth. Even those in Australia are reportedly facing month-long wait times for telehealth consultations. As a result, students everywhere are left unable to address their mental health issues immediately and appropriately.

Irina is a Malaysian undergraduate student whose city has been in and out of lockdown since March 2020. She is anxious that her plan of pursuing an Honours degree next year may be scrapped without a high WAM.

“Without the ‘WAMnesty’, I had two subjects this semester that were lower than my current WAM, which prevented my overall WAM from increasing. So I might have some difficulties trying to find a suitable research lab for my Honours,” she says.

“To be honest, this only partially contributes to my post-grad uncertainty; most of my stress right now comes from my current lockdown situation and the border closure.”

The pandemic is still preventing students from taking classes normally. The University should take a global perspective to evaluate the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the wellbeing of all its students.

Apart from increasing the capacity of Counselling and Psychological Services and developing an integrated wellbeing framework (as outlined in the aforementioned joint statement), the University should listen to the thousands of students humbly requesting a review on a controversial decision. Maybe then they could authentically show the “flexibility” and “compassion” that they have emphasised.

Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Three 2021


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