The University’s safety net policy is full of holes

Comment University/Local Issues

In the perennially wise words of Marge Simpson, it’s very easy to criticise.

It’s much harder to come up with a sound policy for mitigating the effects of a coronavirus pandemic on hundreds of different examinations and types of examinations; at a university comprised of nearly 25,000 students of all ages; who study nearly 400 different courses, undergraduate and postgraduate; who are affiliated with 38 semiautonomous colleges and 58 different departments; who live not only in every corner of the UK but in diverse countries that span numerous time zones.

I do not envy the University staff responsible for preparing such a policy, and I appreciate that no mitigation scheme could feasibly satisfy everyone. It goes without saying that the pressures on staff and students at the moment are immense. Empathy should be the order of the day, and this must be reflected in the actions of our examiners.

I surely speak for many students when I argue that the University’s recently published safety net for Trinity examinations leaves so much to be desired.

Oxford, we are told, is just another educational institution bobbing helplessly along the COVID-19 rapids, beholden – no, victimised – by forces beyond its ken.

The policy is at heart a risk-reduction strategy. Specifically, “[i]t aims to reduce the risk that students may be disadvantaged by the conditions in which they revise for and sit their exams in the exceptional circumstances of the CV-19 pandemic.”

Who can deny that we have been disadvantaged by the pandemic? There is no risk of it anymore – it has already happened. There is no escaping the fact that none of us will perform the same way as we would’ve had coronavirus remained bat-borne. The stress and distraction that now characterises so many of our lives cannot but carry over to our studies and our performance in exams.

Moreover, every student has a different style of learning and a preferred method of assessments. In typical decentralised Oxford fashion, each department should have released their own policies for managing their exams, in addition to the university-wide procedure I am currently lambasting. This means that your friend who studies History may have a very different arrangement to you in Geography. You may prefer what they have, and vice versa.

I’m a coursework guy. I hate sitting in an exam hall, for hours at a time, struggling desperately to prevent my hand from seizing up as I try to convey months or years’ worth of learning in black ink. I much prefer to sit in a library (or bedroom, since every library in the country is now shuttered) and write an essay in my own time.

There are, surprising as it may be, many students who are the polar opposite – braver folks who thrive on the adrenaline of the written examination, who relish the challenge of determining their future via Biro all in the space of three hours or less. Therefore I’m a lot more comfortable with what my department has decided – my exams will be 1,500-word tutorial-style essays, completed over five days – than someone who’s looked forward to donning subfusc and polishing off their degree in person for the last three years.

Now these students must sit in their homes, with all the distractions, diversions and disadvantages that brings. They must ignore the fact that their three-year-old brother is howling downstairs and they can hear their next-door neighbours coughing through the walls. They must attempt to perform at the exact same academic standards as if a virus had not brought civilisation to its knees.

Perhaps the University is caught in the trap of ensuring the academic rigour expected of an institution like ours while struggling to adapt to the needs of a scattered and vulnerable student body. In this somewhat hard-to-understand safety net, it seems like the impression of rigour has taken centre stage.

Most subjects will be able to “bank” summative assessments taken prior to the end of Hilary. Naturally, this will privilege some and impair others.

We’ve heard time and time again, in email after email, from top to bottom of this university’s administration, that “the situation is out of our control.” Oxford, we are told, is just another educational institution bobbing helplessly along the COVID-19 rapids, beholden – no, victimised – by forces beyond its ken. Nobody could indeed have predicted what has taken place. But it has taken a very long time for them to provide some certainty, in a world where every day brings new changes to our order of existence.

This emphasis on distance from responsibility implies that it isn’t fair of us to complain. We’re all in the same boat, student and administrator alike. The uneven impact of coronavirus has shown that this is not the case. Some of us are safely ensconced in country houses, with MacBooks and spare bedrooms galore. Others are under government-enforced quarantine in hotels in the Global South.

There are many more questions still remaining. The Pro-Vice-Chancellor has said, rather ominously, that “we reserve the right to conduct follow-up viva voce exams to check students’ understanding of the examined material.” Who is this aimed at? The threat hangs in the air.

Most subjects will be able to “bank” summative assessments taken prior to the end of Hilary. Naturally, this will privilege some and impair others. We’ve all had coursework that for whatever reason just went wrong, and fell short of your own standards. Now those essays or projects may decide your final grade. Rather than decreasing the pressure on students, those who were relying on Trinity to boost their grade average are facing even more – and that’s ignoring those subjects like PPE which have had no formal assessment.

There will be winners and losers out of those caught in the safety net, but I’m inclined to think the latter will be a far larger catch.

Image Credit: Josh Boddington, The Oxford Student