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Coronavirus leaves universities with no choice but to cancel our exams (The Guardian)

Leaving university is usually a bittersweet experience, but it’s never been this disorientating. As my course shifts online, packing up my room and saying goodbye to my friends and to independence has turned this into one of the most disruptive periods of my life. The same goes for most final-year students I’ve spoken to – both those who study with me at Cambridge and friends finishing elsewhere.

Of course, the degree isn’t actually done. For those of us lucky enough to be able to go back home our thoughts pass to our exams.

Coming from a current finalist like me, a plea for our exams to be cancelled might sound like someone looking for an easy way out. But universities are the ones that have to face up to reality in the middle of a life-changing global emergency. It’s the fairest option we have left.

Having devoted a staggering amount of the last four years to my studies, to lose out on the satisfaction of completing them properly would be beyond demoralising. The ideal scenario would have been for exams simply to be relocated to smaller centres or postponed until after the pandemic.

Yet, with this outbreak predicted to peak during exam season, using venues of any size seems implausible, while rearranging exams for as late as the autumn would be equally unrealistic for students expecting to graduate in June.

By frantically drawing up plans to test us remotely, universities like mine are desperate to avoid devaluing degrees that we have worked extremely hard to get through. But moving exams online would still put entire groups of students at a huge disadvantage, as well as probably distorting the results. It means that cancelling exams would be the only way of guaranteeing the integrity of our degrees without reducing their accessibility to many students and, most importantly, without harming students’ mental and physical health.

Traditional exams, for all their flaws, just about work because everyone knows what we signed up to. Students will have had some say over what share of their marks is taken from exams compared to coursework. To impose a different system on us at this late stage, under these difficult circumstances, would be to tear up any notion of a level playing field.

Online exams rely on a false assumption that we all have a stable home with a place to study and the same access to technology. If the libraries and coffee shops all closed, many of us wouldn’t have the resources or the peace and quiet we needed.

Likewise, students with disabilities have had to fine-tune how they take exams over many years in order to hold their own within the constraints of the traditional format. They need the discretion of invigilators by their side during exams to help them with any problems that they may have on the day.

In subjects such as law, medicine and, as in my case, foreign languages, where a relatively large number of candidates come from families or social circles with backgrounds in those areas, privileged students will surely get a helping hand. How could you prevent a would-be lawyer from asking their solicitor auntie to call in with some advice? Or who’s to stop me from checking over my translations with my French friends?

Even if there were a magic solution to each one of these logistical problems, this doesn’t begin to take into account the direct impact of coronavirus.

Universities would have to be abundantly clear about the special consideration that would be given to the very many candidates who might be ill, in isolation or have family members in hospital during the revision or exam period.

I am especially worried for the students I know, most of them international, who have been affected by this crisis since the start of the calendar year. They have often felt torn between their lives at university and at home, with racist incidents and microaggressions adding to their ordeal.

What I fear will be true for us all is that it would be irrational and insensitive to imply that how students fare in these exams, faced with these pressures, would in any way be a reflection of how we would ordinarily perform. It shouldn’t have to be spelled out: these are no longer ordinary circumstances.

Examiners will do their best to be considerate in their planning and marking but, particularly after limited contact with students, they will find it impossible to allow for the full range of our experiences over the coming weeks and to judge us based on biased essay marathons run in our rooms.

In any case, students deserve the chance to focus on looking after ourselves and our loved ones. Young people may be less susceptible to the symptoms of this virus, but we are not immune to the effects of the pandemic on our lives and our learning.

Published by The Guardian.


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