Daniel Charles, a Selwyn student, chose to break the Sabbath to sit his examsLouis Ashworth

At the end of Exam Term, a Varsity investigation has found that some religious students feel “stressed” or “guilty” as a result of the University’s faith-provision for examinations.

Every year, students can apply through a self-declaration form to have their exams timetabled to avoid clashes with religious events, as “the University recognises that the examination timetable might clash with religious observance that restrict work.”

The Cambridge website states that “the University seeks to minimise these clashes”, but such clashes are sometimes unavoidable, however, due to the complexity of the timetable. In the case where exams cannot be rescheduled, students are told that “it may therefore be necessary to make alternative arrangements, which will be discussed with your College.”

Students who are affected by these clashes face a difficult choice between either going into “quarantine” and sitting the exam at a different time, or ignoring the religious event and sitting the exam with the rest of their cohort.

Alex Ridley, a Seventh-day Adventist who keeps the Sabbath, chose quarantine last year, and took an exam in her college the morning after most of her cohort. At the same time as others started the examination, she was escorted to a set of interconnecting rooms in Clare. To ensure that she didn’t have contact with the outside world, she stayed with an invigilator until after completing her exam in a living room area of the set the following morning. Overnight, she slept in one set while the invigilator stayed in the other.

Ridley praised her college for being supportive of her religious needs and for providing her with some privacy, through the provision of interconnecting sets and not searching her overnight bag for a phone. However, she said that the arrangement “definitely wasn’t ideal”.

She was worried that the general process of isolation could lead to a “big disadvantage” in terms of exam performance, and noted that the quarantine conditions “can cause awkward situations”. When friends greeted her in college buttery as she entered with the invigilator, she was not allowed to talk to them.

Students are placed in a “clear position of having to make choices between their faith and their academic study”

During the quarantine, while Ridley did not have access to the internet, eight people were killed in the London Bridge terror attack. Before beginning the exam on Sunday, the invigilator told Ridley about the attack, saying that she felt she “needed to tell her”. Ridley thought this decision was bizarre, questioning how she would have reacted if she had had family in London, who could have been affected.

To avoid taking an exam during the Jewish Shavuot festival last year, Samuel Isaac at Sidney Sussex similarly chose quarantine, staying overnight with an Orthodox Jewish family. He said that this was “a bit of a palaver” to organise and only possible with the support of the Cambridge University Jewish Society (JSoc): his quarantine was organised not by his college, but by Barry Landy, a fellow at Fitzwilliam, who is the senior treasurer of JSoc.

Isaac added that the quarantine system is “not simple [and] not an easy way to deal with” religious observance. The rules were stricter for him than Ridley: he could not even leave the sight of those supervising him. He told Varsity that “it didn’t really have… a huge effect” on his exam performance, however, and actually gave him slightly longer to read his notes.

Landy similarly told Varsity that, in his experience, quarantine can be a disadvantage for students, but “as with all cases where students take exams under special conditions (e.g. in college) it can work both ways”.

Not all religious students choose to undergo quarantine. Daniel Charles, a student at Selwyn, filled in the form to prevent an exam being scheduled on the Sabbath, but this had “no observable effect” to the examination timetable. He instead chose to sit his exams under normal circumstances to avoid “adding to the stress of exams”. Charles said that this gave him a sense of “guilt and psychological unease” through breaking away from his normal lifestyle.


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Charles was critical of the University’s refusal to move exam dates – a sentiment shared by Ridley, who noted that the exam rescheduling form often does not work, because certain exams are held on the same date every year, regardless of religious clashes.

Landy told Varsity that it would “be good to complete the move started in 1990 to avoid having examinations on Saturdays”. This would dramatically reduce the number of clashes, by avoiding conflicts with the Sabbath.

A spokesperson for the University said: “We ensure where possible that exams, being taken by those students who submitted the form by the deadline, did not conflict with religious observance of the Shabbat and also for Eid ul Fitr Morning prayers.”

They added: “The Board of Examinations has not directly received any comments on the policy (nor any appeals), which has been operational since start of academic year 2015. Students are represented on this Committee.”

University policy, they pointed out, indicates that: “Although the University will make every reasonable effort to amend the examination timetable in the circumstances identified above, the logistics of scheduling a very large numbers of examinations involving many thousands of students within a limited examination period might mean clashes with religious observances might be unavoidable.”

Both Charles and Ridley criticised the current system, with Charles saying it creates a “psychological burden”. Ridley told Varsity that it puts students in a “clear position of having to make choices between their faith and their academic study”.

  • Updated 11:48am, 20th June 2018: This article was updated to include comment from the University

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