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Cambridge students urge university to let them retake the final year

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The University Times

Cambridge University is facing calls to allow students due to graduate this summer to restart their final year in September due to the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 1,000 students have signed a letter to Graham Virgo, the pro-vice chancellor for education, calling on the university to overhaul its summer exams amid widespread fears that the outbreak will adversely affect their exam performance.

 Coronavirus leaves universities with no choice but to cancel our exams

The demands came as the university’s vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope, announced it was asking all students to leave, with all teaching moving online and no exams being held in Cambridge. The university plans to shut on Friday.

He wrote: “We are all facing an unprecedented crisis. It may be months before we resume normal activity.”

The students’ letter raises concerns that they face significant hurdles to revising and taking exams remotely during the Covid-19 outbreak, such as self-isolating or being quarantined due to potential exposure to the virus, and restrictive firewalls in some international students’ home countries.

The students called on the university to offer alternative modes of assessment, such as vivas conducted via video or coursework or postponing exams and dissertation deadlines until after the pandemic passes or restrictions such as social distancing and quarantining have been relaxed. Some degree courses are normally entirely graded on final-year exams.

They also want final-year students to be given the option to restart that year in September, or to retake the Easter term in 2021. They also propose students could receive a degree classification based on previous grades, dissertations and other coursework, or even be awarded an unclassified degree.

The letter warns that unless students’ needs are accommodated the situation could be detrimental both to their academic performance and their wellbeing. It adds that marginalised and less privileged students, including those with disabilities and those who have gone back to repressive regimes, would likely be worst affected.

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The letter warns that students have raised concerns in recent days about issues posed by studying at home, such as lacking desks, books, computers and a stable, high-speed internet connection.

A final year social sciences student, who signed the open letter, said he was concerned that even taking exams remotely might become untenable if growing numbers of staff and students became ill or had to care for loved ones during the pandemic.

The student added: “We are asking for students to be given a choice of options because they faces different challenges. All my family are self-isolating, and I do not have a stable high-speed internet connection in London. Many overseas students will likely face further difficulties.”

The finalist said he would prefer to receive a grade based on his previous assessments or a portfolio of essays submitted next term. If he postponed his graduation this would prevent him from either pursuing a masters degree or a job offer in the autumn, both of which were dependent on him achieving specific grades, he added.

A director of studies at Cambridge, who is also a teaching officer in one of its faculties, said the students were “rightly concerned” about the summer exams, as the situation posed serious challenges for the university.

The academic, who asked to remain anonymous, added: “There is for most students also four weeks of teaching still to be done. Cambridge also has more to decide about in that relatively little teaching has ever been done online and there is relatively little continuous assessment.

Cambridge colleges criticised for asking students to leave over coronavirus

The academic added that exams contributed to between 60% and 80% of a student’s grade – a higher proportion than at most other universities.

In an email to all staff and students today, the vice-chancellor announced that the university had moved into its most serious “red” phase in response to the coronavirus pandemic, with all students asked to return home.

Toope added: “There will be no face-to-face teaching in the Easter term, and there will be no examinations in Cambridge. All teaching will move on-line. The university will communicate with all students by the end of March about alternative assessment arrangements.”

The University Times
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