Virgo stated that the announcement of any plans for Easter term are contingent on Monday’s (22/02) announcement by the PM and subsequent advice from the Department of EducationLouis Ashworth

Following the release of the University’s exams mitigation package on Monday (15/02), many questions remained. Varsity has spoken to the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, Graham Virgo, to clarify the mitigation measures, ask how they will be applied, and what Easter Term might look like.

Varsity explains: three types of mitigation

The University is offering three types of mitigation measures for examinations this year. The first, reasonable adjustments, are available to students with physical and mental health conditions that disadvantage them in examinations, and include measures such as extra time and rest breaks.

The second set of measures are what Virgo named “cross-University” measures, including automatic progression for first and second-year undergraduates, cohort equity, and the option to include an impact statement alongside coursework and dissertations.

The final mitigation measures are to be decided on a faculty and department basis, and was outlined by the University under eight potential measures, to be negotiated with student representatives by 26th February and communicated to students by the end of Lent term at the latest.

Automatic progression

Among the cross-University measures announced on Monday (15/02) was automatic progression for all first and second year undergraduate students who sit all their examinations and pass any professional qualifications within the normal timeframe. According to the University website, any student whose performance “gives significant cause for concern” will be given “additional support” from their College. “We want to ensure you feel properly supported”, said Virgo.

“I’m well aware there are students now who are facing real complexity and difficulty”

When asked to clarify what would qualify as “significant cause for concern”, Virgo declined to “define” this. However, he told Varsity that this measure was designed to “provide support to students”, adding: “I’m well aware there are students now who are facing real complexity and difficulty in terms of preparation work [for exams].”

He explained that this support is intended for a student who, in a normal examination year, “on their paper marks, has failed”, and under normal examination circumstances “would be expected to have to leave”, clarifying that will not be the case this year: “what we’re saying now is that we want them to be supported.”

Virgo stated that this applies to “really small numbers of students”. He added that should students in this position wish to transfer to another course or university, “we will then provide all the support [possible] to enable the student to transfer somewhere else”.

After being asked what form this “additional support” might take, Virgo commented that “it really depends on the nature of the subject, and the circumstances of the student.” He added that Colleges would provide “support as required for individual students”, in both academic and personal capacities.

Reasonable adjustments are still available

Varsity asked Professor Virgo if reasonable adjustments to examinations, that is individual measures for students with mental and physical health conditions such as extra time or rest breaks, would still apply to this year’s take-home exams.

Virgo stressed that should students need reasonable adjustments for examinations this year, they will be in place. He acknowledged that some students will have 24-hour exams and that this enables “flexibility” for students, which he argued “is a good thing, the exams are suddenly inclusive”.

But he also recognised that other students will have much shorter time windows to complete their exams, and may still require reasonable adjustments, telling Varsity that “depending on the circumstances of the student” they will “absolutely” be given extra time, rest breaks, and any other reasonable adjustments that might apply.

There is also potential for timetabling issues for students who require longer periods of time in which to complete their exams. Virgo stated that the University is looking at timetabling “very carefully”, because “it’s one thing to give them an adjustment for one exam, but you’ve got to have regard to when other exams are being taken as well.”

Disparities in application of measures across faculties and departments

When asked about disparities potentially arising from subject to subject as the result of a non-uniform application and adoption of mitigation measures across the different faculties and departments, Virgo referenced the “devolved” nature of the University, arguing that the nature of examinations is “already really different.”

While there has been extensive consultation between Faculties, Departments and students, Virgo said that on the one hand there’s the package of measures “that applies to everybody”; for instance cohort equity and automatic progression for all first and second year students who complete all of their required exams, but that it also became evident in discussions that different faculties are interested in different approaches to examinations, which “adds a layer of complexity.”

“We have to give subjects quite a lot of discretion as to what works for them”

He added that the University is striving for “broad consistency”, but that it became clear that individual faculties and departments need the opportunity to decide for themselves which measures would work for their particular examinations and students.

“I hope it [the application of mitigation measures across different subjects] won’t create unfairness, we really don’t want that, but there is already no consistency so we have to give subjects quite a lot of discretion as to what works for them.”

A second exam period for finalists?

No, there will not be a second mitigation examination period for finalists in the 2020/21 assessment cycle.

The University ran an additional three-week examination period in September last year for all Tripos students and Master of Philosophy candidates undertaking a summative assessment in Easter Term where the summative assessment in question was under timed conditions of 24 hours or less, and where the student was not able to undertake some or all of their assessments in the first assessment period for good reason.

However, Virgo confirmed that after having discussed the issue carefully, it has been decided that there will not be a second assessment period this year.

While students will have the option to apply to the relevant committee for mitigation, Virgo said that the University introduced the option of a second examination period last year because “we were really acting in emergency mode, we had to really flip things very quickly”.

Virgo argued that despite the national lockdown which has affected students this Lent term, “we have made our very significant changes to exams much earlier on, consequently we’ve said we don’t feel it is appropriate to have the second assessment period.”

He added that all “normal mitigation measures would be available” should a student not be able to sit their exams.

Impact statements for coursework and dissertations

One of the mitigation measures which the University announced earlier this week was the inclusion of an impact statement for coursework and dissertations, which should “refer only to the impact of the pandemic on a student’s ability to access resources”, and not personal circumstances or mental health issues.

Virgo emphasised that “we’re keeping resources very open, because there will be some students who couldn’t go on fieldwork, for example, or who couldn’t get into the lab, as well as couldn’t go into a library and get what they needed.”

He explained that the University is aiming to avoid a scenario in which an examiner would look at a dissertation and be critical of a student for not referencing a certain work or archive.

“The impact statement is an academic impact statement”

Virgo continued: “if there’s been a particular impact on [a student’s] health and wellbeing, that would be taken into account through the normal approach to mitigation.”

Unlike most universities, Cambridge adopts an approach where “examiners are assessing the work before them, and do not have regard to mitigation. That is considered separately by medical experts [...] That’s why the impact statement is an academic impact statement, and is exactly what the examiners need to be aware of.”

One-year master’s students to benefit from cross-University measures


Mountain View

Government announces student returns to be delayed until 8th March

With regard to postgraduate students following one-year masters courses, Virgo said that the cohort equity measure, a calculation which will ensure that the distribution of classes this year is in line with the average class distribution for the 2016/17, 2017/18 and 2018/19 assessment cycles, will apply to these students. This will ensure that they are “treated no worse than [their] predecessors.”

However, he confirmed that no such measure can be applied to students on new courses in the 2020/21 academic year.

He conceded that while “all the individual mitigation elements” will be available for master’s students, some of the options available to faculties and departments “just won’t work for one year postgraduate taught courses” due to the “nature of the course” and “professional requirements”, but that these measures are nonetheless “absolutely available for discussion and consideration.”

No certainty yet for Easter Term

Graham Virgo explained to Varsity that before making any statement about what next term might look like for staff and students, the University will wait to hear what will be announced by the government on Monday (22/02). Any plans will also be contingent on advice from the Department of Education. According to Virgo, much of this guidance relates to in-person teaching, and students returning to university premises.

He was doubtful that the Prime Minister’s announcement would result in an immediate return of students to universities. “Frankly, I can’t see that being immediately following the announcement, but I think there will be a roadmap on how, and when, students will be able to come back.”

The University is hoping “that next term as many students as possible will be able to return to Cambridge.” Virgo added “we are certainly planning for that, but we’re in the hands of [the] government.”

Varsity is hoping to speak with the Pro-Vice-Chancellor again soon to discuss the University’s plans for next term in more detail.