Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the education sector has metamorphised into a huge digital operation with a sizable challenge on its hand. Considering the rapidly changing situation and government guidance, universities from across the country have shifted their operations online, to ensure that students are ‘on track’.
The most significant change revolves around summer examinations, which have been replaced with unsupervised virtual assessments (in other words, an essay with a shorter submission window). Unfortunately, these policies have not cemented any consolidation with the thousands of students being challenged by these measures.
I have found myself in a privileged position when it comes to my finals; a quiet household, in the middle of the countryside, and the soothing sound of birds chirping outside my window. But this format puts many people in a disadvantaged position. Remote open-book exams have left some people behind. Not everyone has a reliable Wi-Fi connection, or technology that grants them to access academic material like e-books or databases. And the wide-spread public closures, put in place to slow the spread of the pandemic, mean that using the internet in libraries is not an option.
It is not just people suffering financially that are losing out. Disabled students on Independent Learning Plans (ILPs) – many of whom are entitled to concessions like special software and private invigilators – are finding material inaccessible and social distancing means that provisions cannot be guaranteed. A recent National Union of Students (NUS) survey showed that half of the respondents that rely on assistive technology are lacking necessary support.
There is also a deeper, more profound issue of whether it is righteous to expect young people to undergo career-defining exams at a time of anxiety. As I have previously argued in The Broad, technological innovations are helping those suffering from mental health. But despite the help available, students are feeling dejected and many are having to come to terms with the loss of relatives.
Tarani Tiwari, an undergraduate student at the University of Kent, is one individual who is “trying to find solace in the fact that the whole world is going through this terrifying pandemic together” and says that lockdown “means I cannot escape my own thoughts”. If welfare is on the top of higher education’s agenda, why are students being forced to participate in compulsory exams at such a stressful notice?
The decisions that universities have made about online assessments, may be in place for longer than we think. The University of Edinburgh is “planning a hybrid teaching approach” come September that suggests a move away from busy seminars and packed exam halls. And just this week, Cambridge made the shocking decision to move its operations completely online for the 2020/21 terms.
It is worth noting that mitigation policies vary between institutions. Warwick and others have already introduced ‘no-detriment policies’ guaranteeing that no one will receive a mark lower than they were awarded in their penultimate year (meaning their marks can only go up).
Even before these reforms were implemented, students across the board should have been given a choice between being given a grade based on prior attainment, progressing with exams, or taking their papers later so to meet specific learning outcomes that are needed for certain qualifications.
Because for all the disruption that the current cohort has had to face – including three years of UCU industrial action – mandatory exams have placed another unnecessary burden on students whose lives are being turned upside down.