'A faceless committee they’ll never meet or know, their names protected even from a Google search'Daisy Cox @coolartbyacooldude for Varsity

I tentatively type “E..A..M..C” into the search bar on my computer, careful not to misspell this knottiest of acronyms. I click on the first result and I’m greeted by the University website in all its outdated glory. This underworld of Cambridge bureaucracy is notoriously difficult to decipher, but something on the student registry page proves easier to understand: “the EAMC are managing an unprecedented number of applications,” the top line warns. It’s a distressing truth. With five suspected student suicides in Easter term alone and a deeply ineffective mental health service, it is perhaps no surprise that Cambridge’s post pandemic students are at breaking point.

I first became aware of the controversy surrounding the Examination Access and Mitigation Committee through CamFess in early August. The discourse was heated to say the least. “It’s actually outrageous how self-righteous and inconsiderate/inhumane the EAMC is […] It’s a bunch of senile, emotionless academics who don’t relate to students or their extenuating circumstances,” protested one expletive ridden post. With the promise of “shocking” revelations, it was this CamFess’ appeal to “the mainstream media” which piqued my curiosity. Especially since grievances with the committee are usually confined to the refracted depths of online chat forums, corridor mutterings and discord servers.

The EAMC’s primary responsibility is to help. Whether that be reviewing the grade of a chronically ill student or approving someone’s intermission from their studies, any claim to an extenuating circumstance that has hindered academic attainment has to go through the committee. But when I began my own research, the committee’s obstinance to many circumstances was striking. A finalist needing to intermit was told by [his] tutor that the EAMC dislikes finalists intermitting before exams, because they see it as students “trying to sneak out another year to ace the exams unfairly with academic advantage”. The options open to a Part I student wanting to appeal their grade are similarly limited. Jack* found this out when he had emergency surgery during exam week.

An ordinary person sees someone in need, the EAMC see a compromise to academic integrity

I got in contact with Jack over the summer vacation. Like a lot of the people I spoke to, he was eager to talk, grateful even. Hospitalised for three days in Easter term, Jack was forced to miss one of his papers (for which he was still attributed a 0 on CamSIS). Had he waited for his exams to finish to undergo this surgery, Jack’s situation may have become “life-threatening”. But when he should’ve been resting after surgery, Jack had to spend all his time in hospital desperately trying to dissect convoluted EAMC regulation, attempting to deal with the consequences of this unavoidable medical procedure.

What soon transpired was that Jack – as per an arbitrary EAMC policy – would only be allowed to appeal one of his papers. Since this appeal would be cashed in for the missed exam, Jack realised he would have to sit his last two exams if he wanted a grade at all. And so he did, whilst only two days out of hospital, when he should have been tucked up in bed at home. The EAMC declined to review the marks of either exam.

Jack naturally protested. How were these two exams not affected by “medical or grave cause”? Heavily disrupted revision time aside, he had only been discharged 48 hours earlier. “The EAMC just defended their position by it being ‘by the books’ or just citing regulation at me”.

Daisy Cox @coolartbyacooldude for Varsity

The original CamFess was starting to seem rational in its harsh rhetoric, and a pattern was emerging. Everyone I spoke to insisted that they were one of the lucky ones, that despite all their difficulties (usually medical) and all the red tape there was always someone worse off. But there was another consensus: where an ordinary person sees someone in need, the EAMC see a compromise to academic integrity and the published class list. I was shown an email from a College Tutor to a student informing them that they could not guarantee a “procedural irregularity” would be corrected by the EAMC because “in almost all Triposes the final mark is the result of a complex set of algorithms”. 

Where did it all go wrong with the EAMC? 

I interviewed the Student Union’s access, education and participation officer, Neve Atkinson, in late August. Her words are considered, and whilst cautious not to misrepresent the SU, Neve is explicit in her view that the EAMC is not only unfit for purpose but resistant to change. “We are very concerned,” she says plainly.

Neve cites the example of SU representation on the committee. Every year the SU ask for “student representation” on the EAMC – as is the norm with university committees – yet they are routinely refused access. “It’s a space [the SU] have to have access to, and it’s becoming unacceptable […] It’s a deliberate shutting out”. But this begs the question: what exactly are the university gatekeeping so keenly?

What exactly are the university gatekeeping so keenly?

It’s not just this “shutting out” of the all-important student perspective which has an adverse impact, it’s the nature of examination at Cambridge itself. The university is almost alone in the higher education sector in not offering re-sits. “If [re-sits] were an automatic thing you could apply for after exams, the EAMC would have to deal with far fewer applications”.

Neve does believe that some progress has been made. “We have wins here,” she says. “These days students can apply directly for these exam allowances, that’s something the SU did, you usually had to apply to your college up until recently, which obviously could be a problem if your college was not supportive”. However, as the students I contacted went to great lengths to stress, whatever the committee decide is still so closely tied to how far your college is willing to fight for you. Annabel*, an international student active in the “intermission community”, tells me the outcome of many cases is exacerbated by the biases and favouritism in and between colleges.

“There are too many instances of playing favourites and way too many disparities between, but – most importantly – even within the same college. EAMC results are hence so heavily influenced by biases within a college,” Annabel adds.

What about the SU’s plans for a student representative? “If Jesus Christ was on that committee they wouldn’t care,” she says cynically. For her, the problem is systemic: “I do not understand how this university has still let this committee stand […] they claim to assess cases on a case-by-case basis, and I think they are using that to justify unequal action”. She argues wholeheartedly in favour of greater transparency and regulation so people like Jack know exactly how their fates are decided.

‘If Jesus Christ was on that committee they wouldn’t care’

A finalist, who’s on intermission, agrees: “the main problem [with the EAMC] is that there really isn’t any transparency in the process […] there’s so many layers of red tape that is baffling how the intermission system hasn’t been revamped already”.

Itching to talk but even more terrified to be identified, several students were unwilling to share the full details of their experiences with me on the record. A few have retracted their statements completely. “These are students who are in the process of an appeal or had bad outcomes who are deeply traumatised,” Annabel explains. Do they fear retaliatory action from the university? “Yeah who wouldn’t, I do at least”.


Mountain View

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One of these students in particular is still in the process of appealing a decision arbitrarily made by the EAMC, their life on pause as their fate – materialised by a piece of paper – waits to be assessed by a faceless committee they’ll never meet or know, their names protected even from a Google search. Perhaps it’s fitting these students should speak out under the same veil of anonymity.

In a statement responding to the claims in this article, a University spokesperson said: “the EAMC works under University rules, procedures and policies in order to support students and ensure fair outcomes”.

*None of the student’s real names have been used to protect their identity