LSE’s poorest students fell behind last year. New exam policies face an urgent task.

LSE’s low-income and working-class students fell behind last year, even as gaps faced by other disadvantaged groups narrowed.

With many students completing substantial portions of this year from home, home inequalities have been exacerbated further, putting the spotlight on LSE’s new exam policies to prevent further backsliding and irreversible losses. 

Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, The Beaver’s Editorial Board warned of dire consequences for LSE’s working-class students and those facing financial hardship if measures were not put in place to prevent academic backsliding, a finding supported by our early reporting on the crisis. 

Those students fell behind last year, according to internal documents obtained by The Beaver, even as other disadvantaged groups narrowed outcome gaps compared to more privileged students. On March 8, Pro-Director for Education Professor Dilly Fung and LSESU Education Officer Bali Birch-Lee unveiled LSE’s latest online assessment package, which supporters say take important steps in addressing student hardship.

Those plans take on a particular urgency: reversing the fall and preventing further backsliding, which could reverse LSE’s hard-won progress for students facing financial hardship.

The Grade Awarding Gap for students receiving bursaries rose during the 2019/20 exam window, even as gaps for ethnicity and disability narrowed and the School warned internally of a “particular increase” in grade inflation for 2:1 and First-class degrees. This means that LSE’s working class and financially disadvantaged students fell behind, even as other historically-disadvantaged groups continued to improve their performance and baseline attainment rose across the School.

This information, disclosed in a set of internal 2020/21 assessment policy recommendations obtained by The Beaver, comes after Pro-Director for Education Professor Dilly Fung told the paper in an interview last year that “we know inequalities are maximized” in the online shift, but admitted that the School did not conduct a statistical model or impact assessment of their ‘no disadvantage’ policy on LSE’s most disadvantaged students, including those facing financial hardship, those with caring responsibilities, disabled or BME students.

LSE did not comment on whether the new policy had been assessed to ensure that it did not make existing inequalities worse. 

In 2017/18, around 37% of LSE home students met at least one criteria for financial disadvantage. A strong proxy for more substantial financial hardship is whether students have private or quiet places to study at home: last year, just over 15% of students said they rarely had access to such spaces, including 4.3% who said they had no such space at all, according to survey data collected by LSE in the late summer and obtained by The Beaver in a Freedom of Information request.

Low-income and working class students were also far more likely to face barriers to participation in digital learning. At LSE, 26% of students said that they had insufficient internet connections at home, including 1.3% of students who could only access the internet in public places—access to which has been severely curtailed in most countries. A US study found that low-income students were three times as likely to lack the necessary technology for digital learning, and twice as likely to be unable to consistently attend online classes.

Bursary recipients, whom LSE uses as a proxy for students facing financial hardship, are the LSE home students with the lowest household incomes and those facing exceptional financial need. They are likely to be working-class, are disproportionately likely to face caring responsibilities at home, and face significant barriers in the job market, even in a normal year. Now, the combination of academic losses and an unfavorable, pandemic-stricken graduate job market raise the prospect that working class students may face particularly bad ‘scarring’ in their long-term employment prospects, even while other disadvantaged groups saw relative gains in the first set of pandemic-era examinations.

In short, bursary recipients face among the steepest barriers to social mobility of any student group; the fact that they were the only group to fare relatively worse last year than in previous years confirms the fears of many who warned that exacerbated inequalities in home lives—which covers income and social class, as well as caring responsibilities—might be the defining feature of the transition to remote learning.

LSE’s internal measurement of financial hardship is imperfect, affecting the university’s ability to target policies which meet the needs of its unique student body. The School bases much of its metrics on home undergraduates, despite international students and postgraduates outnumbering both of the former groups. The survey data obtained by The Beaver is unique among most LSE data on inequality because it uses representative samples of international and postgraduate students.

While eligible home students receive bursaries automatically—making bursaries a relatively good measure of home student financial hardship—other factors which make up home life inequalities are more difficult to measure.

These include caring responsibilities, which some students said have forced them to choose between academics and their family or community responsibilities. Nearly a third of LSE students said that they had caring expectations at home, 47% of which were COVID-related, including students who suddenly had to take on responsibilities for younger siblings after the closure of most schools in the spring, and others who had taken on larger support roles for parents with significant COVID comorbidities, like cancer. Of those students, nearly 5% said that their caring responsibilities were full-time, squeezing their ability to focus on studying and completing exams.  

Meanwhile, Chinese students complained of particular issues with online learning given the strict internet restrictions in their country, which can limit access to resources and digital material. Around 14% of LSE’s students are Chinese nationals, but it is not clear how many are completing the year from China. Other international students told The Beaver about the struggles engaging with their courses due to time zone differences.  

Last year, many first-generation university students said that they found it particularly difficult to communicate the impact of home life on their studies to their families, particularly given that low-income and working-class families have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s financial impact, so students said that they felt “guilty” openly discussing the impact of financial hardship on their studies.

LSE’s progress in supporting financially-disadvantaged students at risk

LSE ranks among the top of the Russell Group in enrolling the country’s most socioeconomically disadvantaged students, progress which attests to a concerted effort by the School to enroll and support more low-income and working-class students. That includes generous financial support—totalling close to £4 million per year—as well as outreach through Widening Participation, and allowing departments to lower offer conditions according to factors like financial hardship.

At one point, these programmes were so successful that LSE said “there were very few differences in student outcomes” between income groups, and the School closed a 15% attainment gap between the top 20% and bottom 20% of UK students in just 5 years, according to Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) figures collected by LSE. In terms of progression to employment or further study, the bottom quintile actually outperformed the top quintile by 8% in 2017/18, a 24% improvement in just five years.

Those hard-won gains are at risk if LSE continues to allow low-income and working-class students to fall behind in their university studies. It is not clear how much the Grade Awarding Gap grew last year, and LSE declined to provide the figures in a request, saying that they would be included in a forthcoming publication. However, that LSE considered the data significant in internal reporting suggests statistical significance.

While LSE’s online assessment policies are likely to only affect two final-year cohorts, some early-year students expressed their concerns that academic inequalities this year would be compounded when the university returns in-person, because students who have performed well during the pandemic will be particularly well-placed for further academic work and job-related programmes, like internships.

LSE’s attempts to recruit and support financially-disadvantaged home students are likely to be impacted for years to come by the pandemic’s impact on primary and secondary schools: the National Foundation for Educational Research warned in September that the learning gap between England’s poorest and richest pupils had increased by 46% in a single year under the pandemic.

Many working-class students say that financial hardship and pressure to return home stems from their inability to get jobs, as many students lost employment at the pandemic’s onset, particularly those who relied on jobs at LSE or the SU to support living in London. With those shifts cancelled when LSE shut down in the spring, many students were forced to return home, especially following LSE’s controversial move not to furlough students on zero-hours contracts, such as those working at LSE Events. A year on, few students said that they had been able to secure alternative employment in a retail and service sector heavily beset by pandemic public health measures.

In addition to bursaries, LSE offers some ad-hoc financial assistance, including specific funding designed to offset some digital inequalities. The School’s Financial Support Office (FSO) offers assistance to students facing unexpected financial difficulties through the Student Support Fund, while £500 is available through the FSO and £200 from the LSESU for purchase of a laptop or computer.

Yet many students say that LSE’s socioeconomic divide is far too entrenched to be meaningfully impacted by the ad-hoc financial support offered by LSE. In interviews with working-class students and others facing financial hardship, the issue of private or quiet spaces to study was a recurring issue: one student told LSE “[d]ue to my lack of private quiet study area, it was a challenge for me to complete online exams within strict time limits.”

Others, including those facing caring responsibilities, questioned whether funding was the most effective avenue to address student hardships, rather than a more extensive academic ‘safety net’, like the non-detriment policies deployed by many universities last year, and extended this year by other London universities like UCL.

For some low-income students, reliance on university funding was a source of extra pressure. One first-year international student, who said that their fees and some living costs are covered under the Undergraduate Support Scheme, spoke of the mental health impacts of studying during a pandemic, saying that their attendance had suffered for it, yet added that these issues were made double worse their scholarship is contingent on academic performance. “There is an added pressure to consistently do well and not really allow for mistakes,” they said, “I haven’t really had the time to unwind or really make any friends since I began in September.”

New Assessment Support Package appears to expand support

LSE’s Assessment Support Package takes on the complex task of the concerns that students say are central to the troubles of students facing financial hardship. An internal Online Assessment Project (OAP) policy outline and recommendations obtained by The Beaver gives a rare inside look into LSE’s decision-making process in the winter, while the policy was being negotiated between the School and the SU. 

The Project, an internal working-group under the Academic Registrar’s Division, appeared hesitant to apply the same ‘no disadvantage’ policies as last year, arguing that “students’ readiness for assessments was arguably more affected by the pandemic in summer 2020 than it is now,” and warning that more generous policies would be unfair to 2020 finalists.

Much of the internal justification for paring back the assessment safety net relied on claims of grade inflation. Yet the Academic Board, LSE’s highest academic decision-making body, recently endorsed a paper which concluded that LSE did not have a systematic grade inflation problem, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Last year’s grade inflation is not considered systematic because it resulted largely from the pandemic’s extraordinary circumstances.

The final policy appears to build on last year’s controversial ‘No Disadvantage’ policy, with sources saying that the expanded support is the result of “much more constructive” negotiations between LSE and the SU, after the SU last year took the rare step of publicly criticising LSE’s exam plans. This year, the plan was signed by both Fung and Bali Birch-Lee, the SU’s Education Officer.

Some parts of the plan seem better posed to mitigate home life inequalities. LSE has enhanced its Exceptional Circumstances processes, which now explicitly takes home-life circumstances into account in final marks. In doing so, students who feel that their exams or assessments have been impacted by home circumstances or care responsibilities will be able to apply for special consideration in their final marks.

The OAP had previously recommended “formally acknowledging that issues with technology, home working environments and time zones could have a detrimental impact on academic performance,” but cautioned that these should only be considered “when coupled with other exceptional circumstances.” Input from the Pro-Directorate for Education and negotiations between Fung and Birch-Lee seem to have defeated this proposal, which working-class students said went against the basic principle that home-life inequalities are exceptional circumstances in themselves.

However, the SU was unsuccessful in their drive on exam timings: proposals to grant 50% extra time for time-limited exams, ensure a minimum 24-hour window for all exams, and prohibit overlapping 24-hour exams were all rejected.

Many financially-disadvantaged told The Beaver that home life inequalities are maximized in time-limited or 24-hour exams. In the draft assessment policy, the OAP says that “time-limited nature of some assessments is integral to their design,” without commenting on the differential impacts of such windows according to students’ home lives and caring responsibilities. Moreover, the OAP said that getting rid of overlapping 24-hour exams was impossible due to “the complexity of the course combinations that students select.” Exams will, however, have an extra 30 or 60-minute window to prepare and upload documents.  

LSE gives departments substantial autonomy in setting their own assessment policies, raising worries that students will face differential inequalities based solely on their department. Earlier in the year, the Students’ Union Sabbatical Officers warned that some departments were planning to roll-out artificial intelligence-assisted exam software, which would trace things like student eye movements, in what the SU called an “an invasion of students’ privacy that is unparalleled by current LSE policy.” That policy was spearheaded by the Economics department over objections from the Eden Centre and members of the Directorate responsible for education policy, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

While LSE said that a wide-scale rollout of the software had been shelved, it may still be used in certain courses, and the episode has raised concerns that inequalities will be worse in some departments than others. Separately, 80% of the final-year BSc Accounting and Finance cohort wrote to their department in opposition to asynchronous timed exams for a final-year course, asking for “serious reflection and empathy” given circumstances which have already put extraordinary pressure on students. In their response, however, the department gave little consideration to non-academic factors which might impact student experience, saying that timed exams were necessary for “sensible pedagogical reasons,” according to communications reviewed by The Beaver.

LSE has said that even where department policies differ, the university policy would allow for mark adjustment and other interventions to match issues students face. LSE has also expanded the ‘borderline classification’ criteria, meaning that students whose academic performance has deteriorated can have their newer, lower marks re-assessed in the context of their entire performance.

LSE’s move to relax deferral policies are another area where well-intentioned policy has locked the most disadvantaged students out of support: many low-income and working-class students expressed their feeling that exam deferral was financially impossible, given low or nonexistent savings to sustain themselves in a period in which they might otherwise be working. The disproportionate economic impact of the pandemic on low-income and working-class families has only worsened this effect over the past year. 

Other students felt that deferral offered false hope for students facing home inequalities: it is unlikely that fixed circumstances, like the unavailability of study space or care responsibilities, would change in the interim, while other circumstances could worsen based on unexpected changes. 

One student put the issue into perspective, complaining that the ‘no disadvantage’ framework indirectly discriminated against disadvantaged students: “[t]here are many students who were not that badly affected by the pandemic, had a quiet place to work, good internet connection and financial and personal circumstances that enabled them to perform as well in exams as they would have previously. This was not the case for students from low income backgrounds, with caring responsibilities or from countries where online resources are more difficult to access.” 


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