Oxford University students currently face the most disruptive changes to their academic lives since the Second World War. In response to the extraordinary circumstances created by the coronavirus pandemic, Oxford has been forced to prepare for a Trinity Term taught and examined entirely remotely. The Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, Martin Williams, has been at the centre of these preparations, making decisions which will affect every single student studying at the university.
Two weeks ago, The Oxford Student sent the Pro-Vice-Chancellor a number of questions based on concerns from students regarding how the university will be addressing issues brought on by the pandemic. In a wide-ranging Q&A, we discuss topics from how the University plans to uphold the ‘honour code’ for exams and it’s ‘safety net’ policy, to whether the university is justified in not lowering tuition fees. We hope the answers to these questions shed some light on a dark situation.
For some questions, text in bold italics refers to official university communications on their policies for next term.
Given online teaching is viewed as less valuable than face-to-face teaching, what justification does the University have for not reimbursing students for at least some portion of their annual tuition fees?
Any perception that the online provision the University is delivering is ‘less valuable’ isn’t justified – the University is applying very significant time and resources to ensure that students continue to be able to take advantage of our world class academic teaching and meet the educational objectives of each programme.
The University remains focused on supporting students and delivering our programmes of study within the constraints of current circumstances, which are exceptional and well beyond our control. University staff are working strenuously to ensure our high-quality teaching, assessments and examinations, go ahead while minimising impacts for students. Other University services (e.g. student welfare, careers support) continue to be provided even though staff are working remotely. Whilst we appreciate that the pandemic means that services are not delivered in the same manner as previous years, students will still be receiving the excellent academic teaching and services they are entitled to expect. For these reasons it is not appropriate for course fees to be reduced.
Any perception that the online provision the University is delivering is ‘less valuable’ isn’t justified
What are the University’s contingency plans for the possibility that the current situation may extend to Michaelmas Term or farther?
The University’s first priority has been on arrangements for Trinity Term. We are reviewing a number of potential scenarios for next academic year and will do our utmost to ensure that the new academic year begins as smoothly as it can and that students are supported to focus on their studies. Obviously our hope is that we can return to a fully residential mode from the start of the year. Given the uncertainty over the development of the pandemic in the intervening period between now Michaelmas Term, it’s too early to speculate about exactly what will happen.
Our hope is that we can return to a fully residential mode from the start of the year.
“[The University] plan to implement a safety net policy, which will aim to minimise the risk that Trinity term assessments harm students’ outcomes, compared to their performance in earlier formal assessments.’”
What is the nature of this ‘safety net policy’?
Further, many subjects, for example Modern Languages, Oriental Studies, and PPE do not undergo any formal assessments before final examinations.
On what will this ‘safety net policy’ be based on for these courses and how will the University ensure fairness and uniformity across subjects should the base of the safety net differ?
The University has now published its safety net policy, which aims to reduce the risk of students being disadvantaged by coronavirus, or circumstances surrounding the outbreak that are beyond their control. The policy applies to subjects where remote assessments take place in Trinity term (either open-book exams or longer pieces of assessed work).
Further detail about the policy and how it will be applied to individual courses will follow in the near future from departments and faculties. Given the diversity of Oxford assessment regimes, it’s been necessary to give subjects some local autonomy to do something that works for them. The question is right in noting that it’s hard to design a safety net for courses where no formal assessments have yet been completed. In those cases, we’ve encouraged subjects to put in place a variety of measures to support students to achieve the outcomes they deserve.
“Steps will be taken to address plagiarism and collusion, including the implementation of an ‘honour code’ and the use of specialist software.”
Would you please divulge the nature of the steps to be taken and the specialist software? How is the University going to enforce the ‘honour code’ and punish those who may not abide by it?
There are also concerns amongst students that exam questions will be shared by those who first sit the exam at the start of the 24-hour window so that those who sit the exam later will have an unfair advantage – what will the University do to prevent this?
Our students have worked incredibly hard to get to Oxford in the first place and cheating at this stage would undercut all of their efforts to date, seriously jeopardising the future plans that they have been building towards.
As part of our honour code students will be asked to confirm that they have understood and are willing to abide by the University’s rules on plagiarism and collusion. Further details available here:
We will also continue to make extensive use of plagiarism checkers for submitted work, and we reserve the right to conduct follow-up viva voce exams to check students’ understanding of the examined material.
Students will not be able to choose when they start their exams. Those in the UK time zone and countries where UK exam times are during their local working day) will start at the same time. Only those in other time zones will be permitted a later start, to avoid them working late into the evening or at night. This will ensure that the overwhelming majority have no opportunity to view the paper beforehand. All students are aware that doing so is cheating – just as is passing the paper to others, and that the penalties for cheating are extremely severe.
..We reserve the right to conduct follow-up viva voce exams to check students’ understanding of the examined material.
On the Declared to Deserve Honours degree (DDH)- “[The University] are working with employers and other universities to make clear that this is a recognition of the extraordinary circumstances”
What is the value of this option? Is it comparable to a 2:1?
There are concerns that this option may have a negative effect on employment prospects and postgraduate applications – how will the University assure potential employers about the value of this status and how can you reassure students of the credibility of the DDH?
..Students who were struggling with their studies before the outbreak began, and in receipt of warnings from tutors, will not be eligible.
We expect the vast majority of students to take the remote assessments as scheduled, unless extreme circumstances like illness or caring responsibilities, prevent them from doing so.
Those in good academic standing who are unable to take the assessments can apply for ‘Declared to Deserve Honours’ status (DDH). But students who were struggling with their studies before the outbreak began, and in receipt of warnings from tutors, will not be eligible.
DDH has been modelled on the long-standing award which is available at Cambridge for students experiencing exceptional circumstances. Our colleagues there have shared very positive experiences of how the award is recognised for employment and further study, and we are confident that Oxford students taking this option should not be negatively affected.
DDH students will also receive an enhanced reference stating their expected result, and both documents will include wording referring to their circumstances making it clear that they are in this position through no fault of their own.
Anyone concerned should contact their course tutor who will be able to discuss the plans in more detail.
On returning to Oxford to sit finals exams in Trinity term 2021 – “This option would require college support on the basis of your particular circumstances, as in a normal year. If granted permission, you would only be able to return to take examinations.”
Will circumstances caused by Covid-19, but not directly affect mental or physical health, such as disruptive households that make studying difficult, not be considered a viable cause? Are there plans to make college guidelines on suspension uniform to support this option?
The University appreciates that we are in uncharted territory at this time and is very sympathetic towards anyone experiencing exceptional hardships and disruptions, that are preventing them from continuing with their studies to the same standard they had been prior to the pandemic. That said, these circumstances are comparatively rare, and we have put together a safety net and an enhanced mitigating circumstances notice to examiners (MCE) process to protect the students most at risk. For this reason, we are expecting the vast majority of students to complete their studies wherever possible.
“We will put in measures as a priority to support students who are concerned about access to necessary workspaces, technology and resources.”
What exactly are the measures to support those students?
Students were asked to complete a Readiness self-assessment which will really help to inform our understanding of their individual circumstances, and therefore our response to their needs.
We shall endeavour to do our best to support those who are in need of equipment to complete assessments but may not be able to help everyone.
How will the University accommodate for the lack of access to the Bodleian services and books, especially given the Bodleian announced the suspension of their ‘Scan & Deliver’ service?
While it’s true that the Bodleian Libraries are closed in a physical capacity, and that the temporary loss of access to archive materials irreplaceable, I think that the team are doing a fantastic job of delivering e-resources in their thousands to fill this void. There are 1.4 million resources currently available on SOLO and 60,000 eBooks in their online catalogue now, which is a phenomenal amount
They have also organised a fantastic webinar series for Trinity term which will support students with their learning and research wherever they are. As well as making 1000 reading lists available and adding a Browzine feature to their website, which provides a comprehensive journal service for students, with over 2,700 articles have been downloaded in less than a week.
“We also understand that all students have been impacted by the effects of the coronavirus, some very severely. This will of course be fully taken into account in assessment and classification.”
How will the University measure mitigating circumstances for students who may be in more difficult situations but still wish to undertake online examinations and what will the extent of these considerations entail?
We are currently reviewing our mitigating circumstances evaluation process to see how we can make it easier for students to report how this situation has impacted on their studies. This will be released shortly.
How will the University accommodate the excess intake of domestic first-year students next year following the government policy for all A-Level students to receive their predicted grades and thus fulfil their offers?
..The University will honour the offers it has made to all students who achieve their grades
The first thing to say is that the University will honour the offers it has made to all students who achieve their grades. As to numbers, it’s too early to predict the likely situation. The process for awarding A-level grades is still not finalised; it might lead to higher numbers making their offers, but we don’t know for sure. There are other big uncertainties in play. For instance, we are not certain how many students (particularly international students) will wish to travel away from home following the impact of COVID-19 on their families, communities and/or country. We will do what we can to support all our current offer-holders to transition to their next stage of study.
What are the concessions being put in place by the University for international offer holders who have had their studies disrupted by Covid-19 and may be unable to fulfil their offer?
I think it is important to remember that it is not just international students who have had disrupted education as a result of the pandemic, but also domestic students at school, undergraduate and postgraduate level. Oxford does not depend on just prior qualifications to assess academic potential but already has information on students including from admissions tests, interviews and other forms of assessment for certain courses. This information will be used to help assess if any concessions need to be made.
We particularly recognise that the current situation is causing uncertainty and difficulties for many people pursuing postgraduate study, and we are committed to limiting any impact this will have on offer holders. We have already put a number of measures in place including extension of condition deadlines to 31 August, flexibility in meeting English language requirements and accepting electronic transcripts [refer to FAQS]. At this stage, there is still time for offer-holders to meet their conditions. Oxford will support offer holders through the admissions process, and we hope that they will be able to take up places as expected. Those experiencing any issues are encouraged to contact their academic department in the first instance to see whether these can be resolved.
How will international offer holders who may be required to undertake an English test before admission, fulfil this obligation now that testing centres are closed?
If offer holders have English Language requirements that need to be fulfilled there are alternatives ways these can be met for both academic and visa requirements. Information is available on the University’s website:
We have made the following changes to our English language requirements because test centres are closed in certain regions:
- We will accept older English language tests, taken up to five years prior to the official start date of the course applied for, which meet the published standards for the course.
- Where the department is satisfied with the standard of English, we will waive the language requirement where offer holders have completed a full-time degree, of a minimum of nine months, taught and assessed in English at a recognised institution, in the last five years.
- For those that have already taken an English language test, and have missed the scores that we require by a small margin, they are encouraged to contact their academic department who may accept these scores ask them to attend one of our English language courses when starting at Oxford (at no cost). This will be a decision for the department.
- We will also now accept theonline TOEFL IBT (Special Home Edition).
How is the University planning to support students who were on their year abroad but have now been repatriated? Will these students be charged tuition fees by the University for Trinity term?
We are doing all we can to support our year abroad students and provide them with the best possible learning experience under the current circumstances. Our students have already spent a significant amount of time abroad this year, and they will continue to carry out both remote and independent learning in their host institution and Oxford faculty as planned.
- Students who had to return from Year Abroad programmes are still being taught remotely by their host institutions abroad, and in some cases students are also being integrated into existing classes in Oxford.
- Some students incurred considerable travel expenses due to the early return, which will be covered by insurance or their Faculty.
- Some students decided to stay abroad, and others may be able to return over the summer.
- Independent learning is an important part of the year abroad and students all have a set of academic tasks which they will complete next term as usual.
- The requirement for time spent abroad to meet the course criteria has been reduced from 24 weeks to 16 weeks for this year, to take account of the exceptional circumstances.