Remote teaching and assessment will leave some students disadvantaged

“At this stage, I can confirm that we anticipate that most or all teaching and assessment next term will take place remotely.” (Oxford Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education via email, 16th March 2020)


It should be welcomed by all that the University is in active discussions over the impact of coronavirus on Trinity term. Equally, we should recognise that for many students and staff there are far more important concerns at this moment in time.

Nevertheless, there is a legitimate need to discuss some of the major access and welfare implications of remote teaching and assessment, so that our concerns can be incorporated into the overall university strategy. Inevitably, this piece won’t capture all the concerns but I hope it provides a starting point for further discussion.

Remote or distance teaching/assessment involves methods of education that do not have students physically present at a university. Much of this discussion has so far centred on the practical implications of remote assessment, with questions arising over how the university can ensure exam conditions are met. These are serious concerns, but at this moment they rely on speculation over the style of remote assessment. A far more useful discussion point centres on the wider access and welfare implications.

Remote examinations will inevitably disadvantage students who lack a quiet study space to revise and take their examinations. Students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to share a bedroom/study space and will be disproportionally affected. The implicit assumption that students have access to WiFi, a safe space to work in or indeed a ‘home’ opens up serious questions about how exams might be conducted in a fair and consistent manner for all students.

Students from disadvantaged social backgrounds may also face increased pressure to work and help provide for their family should their relatives face redundancies and insecure work. When students are resident at university these challenges are partially mitigated. Remote assessments should not disadvantage students who are having to support their family in a time of immense uncertainty.

Another major concern arises from the disparity in access to resources. Those students from more represented areas, such as London and the South East, will inevitably find it much easier to travel to Oxford to consult the university collections, whilst those from the regions and abroad will face significant financial barriers should they wish to gain the same level of access. One source even suggests hearing some students “talking about just privately renting somewhere in Oxford for the term if they aren’t allowed back into college accommodation.”Yet this issue isn’t purely financial, and students suffering from medical conditions that make COVID-19 particularly worrying also stressed they would be at a disadvantage due to their decision to remain away from urban settings.

Even if taking a broader outlook, students living in certain settings will inevitably have better access to materials and academic study spaces compared to their counterparts in other rural and regional areas. These disparities will be particularly felt in smaller subjects, such as Human Sciences, where crucial resources are often physical rather than electronic, as well as in courses that have coursework as a significant element next term.

As well as addressing these issues, the university must also be sympathetic to the genuine concerns of many on how the current situation might impact their mental health and wellbeing. One finalist stated that exams in the current climate “are completely inappropriate” whilst another was clear that “if finals can’t be done in Oxford, they should not be done at all.”

Those students living in rural areas face a disproportionate challenge over the coming months if remote assessments are enforced. One second year student stressed how they “live in the middle of nowhere, miles away from friends” and “loneliness could become a big issue when trying to work.” The lack of social contact for those in rural communities poses a substantial challenge for Trinity examinations and runs the risk of serious mental health problems that the university must seek to mitigate.

Whilst not uniquely relevant to remote examinations, the university must also consider measures to help those students who have assumed or are likely to assume considerable caring responsibilities. Those who are particularly vulnerable due to underlying medical conditions or look after vulnerable relatives must be given special consideration. One student, speaking anonymously, noted how they are currently the “one doing the shopping for all of the households, miles apart, as I’m the only one who isn’t [in] a vulnerable group,” leaving them little time to consider revision. Furthermore, students from lower socioeconomic groups will face unique concerns over the NHS bed crisis and the impact of this on their family that are not comparable to those from affluent backgrounds with more ready access to private healthcare and medication.

The university should be given the space to demonstrate the validity of its proposals, yet the term ‘remote examination’ must be discarded and replaced by ‘online’ or ‘virtual’ assessments in all official correspondence. Assuming the situation allows it, so-called ‘remote assessments’ must only proceed if students can return to college accommodation, thus mitigating some of the access and welfare concerns raised. Put simply, measures must be put in place that ensure, if it is safe to do so, students can return to Oxford next term and achieve their potential. If the conditions are more favourable in the months that follow, then in-college assessments within smaller groups could also be considered, especially in science subjects where there are considerable practical issues with virtual assessment.

Should examinations not be able to proceed as normal, and online assessment within college accommodation prove impossible, the university will have no choice but to formulate proposals under which examinations would be cancelled. Regardless of how the situation develops, there should be no remote assessment at Oxford University this summer until the access and welfare concerns of the student body are suitably mitigated.

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