Oxford should have cancelled exams

Comment National Issues University/Local Issues

To put it simply: the disturbance caused by the coronavirus pandemic should merit cancelling all exams in Trinity term. The UK government has already cancelled all GCSEs and A levels and shut all schools. Further, a majority of people in the UK are either working from home or not at all. This disruption to society is widespread and affects us all. From businesses to families to schools – the list goes on.

Amid all of this, Oxford intends to continue to hold exams for a significant proportion of the University. While Prelims have been cancelled, Finals will be going ahead. The Pro-Vice-Chancellor maintains this will “ensure as many students as possible can complete their degrees and graduate on time”. Moreover, students will be able to progress to the next stage of their lives. Additionally, this decision will uphold the University’s reputation, to “offer the best possible education to our new and continuing students” next year.

Obviously, I understand the need for students to continue with their lives. Many finalists have job offers and further education opportunities riding on these exams. Others will be busy over the summer as they take up a job or internship or go travelling. People have plans. Many will be busy come September and October, which makes it staggering that the university proposed rescheduling some non-finalist exams to this period.

Amid all this…Oxford intends to continue to hold exams for a significant proportion of the University. While Prelims have been cancelled, Finals will be going ahead.

But, in short, this need is outweighed by the societal upheaval and personal disruptions caused by the outbreak. This is the worst outbreak in over 100 years. The repercussions will be unprecedented. Schools students also have a great deal riding on their GCSEs and A levels. Plus, in the case of the latter, many students will have offers for universities contingent on A level grades. And yet these exams are now off the cards and instead the Department for Education is drawing up contingency plans to minimise the disruption to next year’s cohort.

Furthermore, we can find a much better solution. A solution where the requirements no longer rest solely on Finals exams or degree qualifications. Since this year’s undergraduate degree places now no longer require A level grades, why can the University not follow suit with postgraduate degree offers? Plus, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask for corporations to take students based on prior performance, expected qualifications or delayed exams.

If the University makes it clear that its intention and justification regarding Finals and has clear alternatives in mind, most corporations will not simply reject students. Instead, they will just find a sensible solution. It is the job of both the University and the government to work to ensure that this does not happen.

Since this year’s undergraduate degree places now no longer require A level grades, why can the University not follow suit with postgraduate degree offers?

But what happens if/when universities predict students lower than expected grades which fall foul of job-offer requirements?  Admittedly, there will be some disruption and this may not be fair on them. But consider the much larger number of students who will be unfairly disadvantaged by holding Finals now.

The Coronavirus Pandemic affects us all on so many levels. Some people might themselves have contracted it, be self-isolating with positively-testing family members, or even have lost loved ones. Plus, there are other difficulties. Some students may lack a suitable work-place, suitable resources like library books. Others may struggle with the anxiety and stress from a dramatic change in exam format. The list goes on…

The personal disruption is colossal, unprecedented and for many, very consuming. No student is immune. Sitting these exams now will affect them in all their job opportunities and career paths down the line. This final grade will haunt them forever.

The Coronavirus Pandemic affects us all on so many levels. Some people might themselves have contracted it, be self-isolating with positively-testing family members, or even have lost loved ones.

Holding Finals exams during this time is simply madness. What about all those students expecting to take ‘normal’ exams under ‘normal’ circumstances? Of course, people have plans, but the UK is currently in lockdown. This is not the usual scenario. Disruption will come in all courses during ‘lockdown’ from holidays to personal plans.

But, the university can at least do this. It can mitigate the damage holding exams in Trinity could cause to students’ chances down the line. It can put the brakes in its obstinacy and put the welfare of its students first and foremost. Undoubtedly, cancelling exams would not be universally popular. Our own Pro-Vice-Chancellor Martin Williams noted that “some students have expressed a desire for all assessments to be cancelled, while others have indicated that they would like them all to continue”.

Clearly they cannot accommodate both. But now is the time for pragmatism, practicality but also empathy. We are facing a serious pandemic right now. Holding exams in light of this will disadvantage more people than it will benefit.

Image Description: Oxford students walking to their exams dressed in sub-fusc

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