Departments and faculties are formulating 'alternative assessment arrangements' for exam term, to be approved by the central university and communicated to students by the end of March. Simon Lock

Content Note: This article contains detailed discussion of the coronavirus and its implications on university examinations. Please scroll to the bottom of the article for links to useful information and support.

As the University of Cambridge shuts down, ’alternative assessment arrangements’ are being formulated and will be ‘communicated’ to all students by the end of March. However, in Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope’s coronavirus email updates, not once has he encouraged the prospect of student involvement in the process of figuring out what form assessments will now take, during a time that he has himself rightly referred to as an ‘unprecedented crisis’.

Similarly, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor Graham Virgo has informed us that the University is ‘working out the details’, and there will be an ‘FAQ webpage’ to which students with concerns will be directed. Despite Virgo’s mention of some ‘core principles’ the University will be adopting, if students’ voices and lived experiences are not at the heart of this process, these will remain little more than vacuous platitudes.

“...the University’s overall response to the coronavirus crisis is predictably narrow and its framework highly constraining.”

Departments and faculties will make recommendations to the University and have the option to gather student concerns to inform these recommendations. However, assessment format will ultimately be decided by the General Board’s Education Committee of the University, and the result of this decision-making process will have a massive impact on the well-being of students trying to navigate our ways through this crisis. Unsurprisingly, students are desperate to be involved in this process, and open letters to Departments are springing up everywhere.

Meanwhile, student representatives like myself, many facing our own challenges, are doing our best to gather and represent student concerns at this hectic time, and at short notice. Most significantly, an open letter to the Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Graham Virgo, has garnered over 1,500 student signatories at the time of writing. However, the worry is that many of those most affected by the crisis, and thus by any decisions taken, will have difficulty making their voices heard at such short notice.

The intensity, diversity and unpredictability of the societal disruption we are currently facing is having a myriad of impacts on students. In these circumstances, the clear lack of interest in student voices and experiences displayed by Toope and Virgo, whose words (as they will know) have the power to set the tone, is inexcusable. The sheer range of impacts this mass societal disruption is having on students is way too multitudinous to even comprehend, let alone to predict how these impacts will change going forward. None of this will be much clearer by March 31st, when students will be informed on how they will be assessed.

Given the lack of interest in student voices, coupled with the way the University has handled the crisis so far, these arrangements look set to take forms that will be difficult for all, and dire for some. By not centring student voices from the outset, the University is failing to recognise the sheer complexity of lived experiences of students during this crisis, and this neglect will be reflected in the decisions it takes.

“The University should rise to the occasion – be bold and think beyond the narrow confines of ‘alternative assessment arrangements’.”

But what does the aforementioned intensity, diversity, and unpredictability of ramifications for students actually mean? It means unparalleled difficulties for those with underlying health conditions (both physical and mental). It means unprecedented inequality in terms of working environments and conditions – for instance, not everyone has a desk and a quiet space to work at home, which is where many students will have to be. It means many international students facing extreme instability, with many stranded and separated from their loved ones. It means students, many of whom will constitute some of the least at-risk members of society, will be required to help their families, friends, and communities navigate this crisis.

And this is to name just a few. One single student, let alone the entire student population, could be simultaneously affected by all of these impacts, and many more. Students are also not immune from many other more general mass societal effects of the coronavirus crisis.

The intersection of this with an insistence upon ‘academic rigour’ raises serious questions about the University’s duty of care to students, not to mention its responsibility to wider society at this time of immense crisis. Any one-size-fits-some ‘arrangements’ – ultimately decided by the University and imposed upon students – will inevitably fail to deal humanely with the ramifications for students of the mass societal disruption we face. In this vein, the open letter to Virgo emphasises the importance of empowering students as much as possible during such a time.

If some forms of assessment are to go ahead (even whilst exams have already been cancelled at many other universities, particularly for non-finalists), the University’s priority should be to ensure that assessment options are the broadest they can possibly be, especially for finalists, and that every student is empowered to decide themselves which (if any) option is most appropriate for them, based on their particular circumstances.

But we cannot ignore the elephant in the room. What makes this process of organising alternative assessments so impossible to coherently conceptualise and implement is that our pre-existing systems are already flawed and discriminatory, even at the best of times.


Mountain View

Cambridge’s response to Covid-19 is slow, inconsistent, and ambiguous. Students bear the burden.

Assessment arrangements carried out in the current climate will unavoidably amplify these flaws, particularly for students with disabilities and neurodiversities, for international students, for BME students, for Class Act students, for all other marginalised groups, and for all individuals facing their own particular challenges during this time. The less the University centres student voices and experiences in this process, the worse this will be. And if the end result of this process does not at least provide the aforementioned level of flexibility, a movement of mass assessment boycotting will be ripe to emerge in the current climate.

Many Departments are doing their best in trying times to make good recommendations to the University, but the University’s overall response to the coronavirus crisis is predictably narrow and its framework highly constraining. It should instead be focusing its energies on supporting students practically and pastorally as much as it possibly can.

Academically, Cambridge should be prioritising the continuation and creative adaptation of non-assessed learning – in contextually sensitive ways that meet the demands of the diverse new realities unfolding before our eyes. The University should rise to the occasion – be bold and think beyond the narrow confines of ‘alternative assessment arrangements’. I fear it will not.