Dude, where’s my term? SU VP for Access and Academic Affairs discusses the fate of Trinity 2020

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Ray Williams, SU Vice President for Access and Academic Affairs, has been in the rooms (nowadays the conference calls) where the university has been deciding its response to the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an exclusive interview with The Oxford Student, we discuss some of the big questions on students’ minds, such as whether colleges will allow students back, how likely the university is to grant students choice over their exams, and more.

It’s an unglamorous interview location – my cramped shared bedroom in South London – which only adds to the surreal nature of what Ray Williams and I are discussing. The interview, conducted mainly over Facebook Messenger but with some discussion over the phone, is wide ranging, at times hopeful, at times pessimistic, but increasingly one point becomes clear: Trinity Term 2020 at Oxford will have no historical precedent.

“This crisis has forced us to consider what it actually means to be a student at Oxford. It’s forced the university to reassess what is possible to provide for students.”

Williams’ remarks carry weight, given how of all the student body he is one of the most well placed to understand just how the pandemic will affect the running of next term.

Elected as Vice President for Access and Academic Affairs at the Student Union (SU), his role involves representing students’ viewpoints in meetings with key decision makers in the university. Throughout the interview he casually mentions phone conversations with the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education and reflects on discussions he has had with college Senior Tutors regarding a multitude of topics.

“This crisis has forced us to consider what it actually means to be a student at Oxford. It’s forced the university to reassess what is possible to provide for students.”

We start by talking about the general priorities of the SU. Williams is keen to emphasise the SU’s role in making sure “the student voice isn’t lost in the storm.”

“Just as in normal times, the SU’s priority is the wellbeing and educational experience of students and I’d like to reassure all students that the SU is working hard for them during this crisis, grappling with issues like accommodation, library resources, and the all-important academic arrangements for next term.”

Few interact directly with the SU, and some see it as a somewhat opaque, bureaucratic institution. Despite this reputation, their recent Teaching and Assessment Student Consultation (TASC) has received over 5000 responses, the biggest engagement with the student body the SU has made in years, more than any SU election. It signals an overwhelming demand from students to have a say in how the final term of the academic year and, for many, their university careers, will play out.

The consultation is a form asking students about the effect multiple different methods of teaching and examination will have on them, from recorded lectures to open book online exams (it closed 1pm Wednesday 25th March).

“[The] recent Teaching and Assessment Student Consultation (TASC) has received over 5000 responses, the biggest engagement with the student body the SU has made in years”

Williams describes this consultation as his “main focus right now,” and goes on to say the SU’s next aim is to synthesise these “insightful, moving, and powerful” responses into a clear message for the university to hear.

Of course, there is a lot of scepticism about how seriously such a consultation will be taken by the university – it is easy to imagine this as a PR stunt, meant to give the appearance of engagement without actually have to pay much attention to student perspectives.

Williams gives a hefty list of key decision makers that have contributed to the development of the consultation along with the SU, giving some indication that the university will take this seriously. The Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning, the Director of Student Registry, the Head of Taught Degrees, the Head of Research Degrees, and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education are all names he lists as having an input.

Yet, when probed further, he admits students are unlikely to have all their preferences fulfilled:

“Of course, the university isn’t going to implement whatever the survey says is most popular. That’s not what this consultation is about. What the university really wants to understand – and this is the foundation of our lobbying – is what effect whatever measures they put in place will have on students.”

There it is, a key insight perhaps missing from official university communications, even if somewhat obvious. No, the university isn’t going to take measures that allow everyone to get a first, they aren’t trying to win popularity points. But it is clear from Williams’ response that there is some level of compassion – if not a desire to maximise happiness, one to minimise harm.

We then turn to one of the biggest questions on students’ minds. For a variety of reasons, students want to know whether they can return to their colleges for Trinity Term, and I ask Williams whether the SU is pushing for this to happen, and whether the mood among colleges is in favour.

The first clear point is that the SU is trying to be selective about who they push the hardest to be granted accommodation. Williams highlights they are aiming to get colleges to re-admit those who “need it” particularly “estranged students and students with caring responsibilities.”

“Of course, the university isn’t going to implement whatever the survey says is most popular. That’s not what this consultation is about.”

The second is that the mood among colleges to re-admit students is “mixed.” The debate amongst colleges is characterised on the one hand by a desire to accommodate students’ need for an adequate working environment to learn and prepare for exams, but on the other hand by worries about the “serious public health concerns” that could arise from a large mass of students re-entering the university during a massive pandemic.

The third is that the decision could be taken entirely out of colleges’, and indeed the university’s hands. Presciently, given this interview was held before Boris Johnson made the national address starting an enforced lockdown across the United Kingdom, Williams states he’s “conscious of the fact that the government may be on the verge of prohibiting non-essential travel and travelling back to university may not be considered essential.”

As of now then, the chances of the most needy students being allowed to return to the university seem low, and the chances of everyone being able to return look about nil, though of course the only thing predictable about the future in this era is its unpredictability. It remains to be seen in the event the university does allow some to come back, how they would define those who ‘need’ accommodation, and more importantly, how they would differentiate between those trying to find a way to see their friends again and those with a genuine requirement to return.

Whether students return or stay at home however, they face a markedly different style of learning, with the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education repeatedly highlighting in emails that there would be no conventional teaching or examination in Trinity – everything would be done remotely.

Naturally, the most worried portion of the student body are finalists, and not just in Oxford but across the country there is a tangible, desperate desire among students to try and grasp some control over the examinations many of them have spent hundreds or thousands of hours working towards. From Cambridge to UCL, Edinburgh, and now Oxford, open letters have been written urging universities to consider postponing exams, or at least give students some choice over their methods of examination, from vivas and coursework to tutorials (or in Cambridge lingo supervisions) being used to judge a final grade.

When asked about whether the SU is pushing for more flexibility for students, Williams affirms that “the SU will be lobbying on the basis of the results of the consultation. The different methods mentioned have all featured in the conversations I’ve been having with university decision-makers and we’re well aware of the problems associated with a one-size-fits-all approach.” He describes how his mindset is “to get [students] as much choice and as much consideration of their circumstances as possible.”

Not just in Oxford but across the country there is a tangible, desperate desire among students to try and grasp some control

But there’s a catch: “That being said the logistical burden and the questions of fairness that would arise from a level of flexibility as great as that recommended by the recent student open letter is probably too great to overcome.”

In other words, students won’t be able to pick and choose. It is unlikely two people studying for the same papers are going to be able to take radically different methods of examination and yet receive the same degree. Something more likely to occur is students being able to choose whether they take exams at all next term. Those who don’t could graduate being “declared to have deserved honours” with an unclassified degree (something normally given to students who have missed exams due to extenuating circumstances), or potentially be able to postpone exams until next year.

Postponement of exams, rustication, suspension, whatever you call it, is a hot topic among the student body, with Williams describing it as “practically coffee table chatter.” Yet much of the discussion around it is heavily misinformed. Many describe suspension as something to do on a whim, almost as easy as informing your tutor you’ll have to miss a tutorial this week, only instead of a tutorial it’s a year of study.

“That being said the logistical burden and the questions of fairness that would arise from a level of flexibility as great as that recommended by the recent student open letter is probably too great to overcome.”

However, most college policies only allow suspension for health or other serious welfare reasons, such as bereavement or caring responsibilities – and people will only be able to suspend if their college or the university allows them to.

That being said, Williams is keen to reassure those who view suspension as the only way out amidst this crisis:

“Many students can’t afford to put their lives on hold for a year and it’s a decision that no student would take lightly. I want as many final year students as possible to be able to reach the finish line this year and a big part of our consultation, with its focus on the effect different measures will have on students’ lives, is finding the solutions that will help with that”

Whilst the aim is to get everyone over the finish line then, the sad truth is that many will do so after a race they didn’t want to run.

The last academic topic we talk about is whether the SU is lobbying for the university to understand the needs of individual subjects by consulting with the relevant departments. A recent open letter made by second year mathematicians achieved 75 signatures, and discussed how, particularly for STEM subjects, online examinations were likely to be challenging, due to the need to write equations and potentially learn how to use different programs. The argument is that what works for history exams won’t work for maths, and the university needs to be considering these subject level concerns.

Williams conveys that it is the central university who will ultimately make the final decisions but still highlights how the “SU’s Divisional Representatives – academic reps who represent their peers’ interests at the divisional level and support course reps” have been “working diligently to make sure students get the representation they deserve.”

Whilst the aim is to get everyone over the finish line then, the sad truth is that many will do so after a race they didn’t want to run.

In reference to the mathematicians’ open letter, which was eventually sent to him for consideration, Williams says he is aiming to liaise “with [STEM students] on a case-by-case basis” and to work with their departments to aide their arrangements for Trinity. He highlights that “similarly, the central university is consulting with academic departments, faculties, and colleges” to make sure the best outcomes for students studying all subjects are delivered.

We end on a slightly more positive note. Whilst “it’s not going to be easy,” Williams expresses amazement at the efforts students have been making to keep morale up amongst their peers, with groups dedicated to posting positive clips or pictures, students uploading notes to the SU shared notes drive, or whole Minecraft servers being created for college members to inhabit:

“I’ve been so impressed by how students have handled this unprecedented situation. Especially those students with society and common room responsibilities. Honestly, it’s inspiring.”

If there’s one benefit that can be gleaned from this crisis for students it’s that it’s led to the consideration of policies demanded for years: universal lecture capture, or diversified assessment methods to name a few.

“We were always on a trajectory towards a smarter, more accessible, and more high-tech education – ironically, the coronavirus pandemic has simply accelerated us along that journey.” Williams hopes that even after this crisis the university doesn’t go “backwards” and maintains some of these innovations.

As Oxford students across the globe hunker down amidst government enforced lockdowns, whatever happens after the crisis feels a long way away right now.

Illustration by Holly Woodhead