The National Union of Students has called on universities to cancel or postpone this summer’s exams to avoid further stress and disruption to students’ lives during the coronavirus pandemic.
The NUS said disabled, international and poorer students would be significantly disadvantaged if universities go through with plans to hold online exams and assessments next term.
It said final-year students should be given a choice of how to complete their degrees, such as receiving an estimated grade based on prior attainment, doing an open book online exam, or taking their finals at the university at a later date.
“In the current climate, student welfare must come first,” said Claire Sosienski-Smith, the NUS vice-president (higher education). “It is vital that there are no compulsory exams this year.”
The NUS added that all exams for first and second-year students should be cancelled, while postgraduate students should get a six-month extension to their submission deadlines.
What do the restrictions involve?
People in the UK will only be allowed to leave their home for the following purposes:
- Shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
- One form of exercise a day – for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household
- Any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
- Travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home
Police will have the powers to enforce the rules, including through fines and dispersing gatherings. To ensure compliance with the instruction to stay at home, the government will:
- Close all shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronic stores and other premises including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship
- Stop all gatherings of more than two people in public – excluding people you live with
- Stop all social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but excluding funerals
Parks will remain open for exercise, but gatherings will be dispersed.
The demand comes after thousands of students across the country called for alternative assessments to be put in place to ensure their academic performance is not adversely affected by the Covid-19 outbreak.
Many international students at Imperial College London face having to do their online exams in the middle of the night after the university notified them that “being in a different time zone cannot be used as a mitigating circumstance” and they must be “available at the correct UK time, wherever they are”. Some, including Chinese students, cannot access study materials due to internet censorship.
A physics student, who is quarantined in Shanghai, said he was unable to access Panopto lecture recordings for his revision because the site was blocked by China’s firewall. “Imperial College has made it more difficult than regular exams because now you have to deal with technology and censorship,” he said.
Max, not his real name, said Chinese students were also under great stress because relatives had died of Covid-19. “My grandmother passed away because of coronavirus,” he said.
The physics student said he might also face being quarantined for another fortnight when he returns to his family home in Wuhan, the centre of the Chinese outbreak, which would end around the time when his exams are due to start.
In a statement, Imperial College said: “We are putting additional support in place for students and we are updating our mitigating circumstances policy to take account of where a student does not have access to the equipment or facilities to undertake the assessment.”
Piers Wilkinson, the NUS’s disabled students officer, said the academic year should end now because universities cannot provide disabled students – who make up 13% of the student population – with the reasonable adjustments they are legally required to put in place due to the pandemic lockdown.
Wilkinson said most of the study support provided to disabled students could either only be delivered on campus or would be impossible to provide remotely. This included providing note-taking, sign-language interpreters, close captioning of lectures, and screen-readers that render text and image content as speech or Braille.
He added: “There is no way that disabled students can be on an equal level playing field as every other student during this pandemic. They should be allowed to suspend their studies until it’s reasonable and equitable for them to start again.”
A Cambridge student with diabetes and depression, who has suffered panic attacks during exams, said the university had not explained how it would accommodate her disability in an online assessment. “I’m at high risk of getting really ill if I contract coronavirus as [I have] diabetes,” she said. “Stress also adversely affects my blood glucose levels which makes it hard to get much done above staying healthy.”
Cambridge University was approached for comment.
A spokeswoman for Universities UK, which represents 137 higher education institutions, said universities were looking at various options to ensure students were fairly assessed. She added that “universities will try to be as accommodating as they can” to students’ varying needs for support.