"Yet Toope and the University’s higher ups seemingly haven’t gotten the message"Rebecca Tyson

After a long winter, spring has truly awoken. Not only are the blossoms out but the masks are off, lateral flows are in the bin, and, most importantly, jabs are in arms. The pandemic is all but over.

Yet Toope and the University’s higher ups seemingly haven’t gotten the message. Over the course of both Lent and Michaelmas, when case numbers were even lower than they currently are, I can count the number of in-person practicals I had on both hands, and the state of lectures wasn’t much better either. While a number of lectures were in-person, online lectures were still taking place, creating a mish-mash that made the adoption of a structured and consistent routine virtually impossible. And the strikes made this problem even worse.

“It is clear that this inaction is not simple bureaucratic lethargy”

I will concede that certain restrictions on in-person activities were a necessary evil throughout 2020 and early 2021. However, from the very beginning of my time here, the University has pursued a ham-fisted approach. Before I even set foot in Cambridge, the University announced that all face-to-face lectures would be shifted online for the entirety of the academic year. Not a single other Russell Group university pursued a policy so extreme. And while we were reassured that this policy would not affect practicals or supervisions, every scheduled practical I had last year was moved online.

Three vaccinations later, and the situation is still not much different for us Natscis. It is clear that this inaction is not simple bureaucratic lethargy, because if it were, the University would not be expending the effort to trial cumbersome online exam systems next term.

Despite it being clear that the threat posed by Covid-19 is now minimal, the University is pressing ahead to push most first and second year exams online. Curiously, most (though not all) third and fourth year exams have been spared this treatment. It seems the only rationale for this discrepancy is that it is part of a wider plan to eventually move all exams online permanently.

“There is no reality in which online exams are a suitable replacement for those happening in-person”

Indeed, much of the material we have received regarding online exams stresses the “many advantages” of the new Inspera platform. But quite frankly, no matter how much marketing material the University attempts to shove down our throats, there is no reality in which online exams are a suitable replacement for those happening in-person.

The entirely unnecessary efforts to move exam proctoring online has resulted in the Orwellian mess that the Inspera platform is. Even the cumbersome photo ID check required before taking any exams on the platform is rather tame compared to having your every move monitored through your webcam. Both this enormous hassle and egregious invasion of privacy could easily be avoided if we simply sat exams in-person.

And this is the true disaster of online learning. The University leadership have deluded themselves that online learning can actually be a suitable replacement for – and in some cases better than – its in-person counterpart. They believe over the pandemic they saw the future and it worked. But it never really did.

From the few morsels of in-person learning I’ve enjoyed, I’ve come to realise what we were deprived of last year and what the University continues to deprive many of us of. In my first ever in-person lab session at the start of this year, I was introduced to someone who I have since maintained a good friendship with. And through them I have been introduced to a completely different group of people who I now also count among my friends. If you extrapolate this across the whole university, you realise the monumental calamity that continuing online learning has been. It is not only the potential friendships that have been lost, but business ventures, research projects, and even love. Societal development depends on us being able to have these chance encounters with people that have shared interests – and it is this that the University has sociopathically stifled.

The social and academic spheres, then, are not as separate as the mandarins in-charge would like to think. But even if we leave social considerations to the side, it is still entirely delusional to believe that online learning delivers teaching as effectively as the in-person alternative. Watching some poor graduate lab assistant awkwardly explain how to use a vacuum desiccator at 2x speed never was and never will be equivalent to using one yourself.


Mountain View

Possible exam mitigations in light of strikes, University says

For many universities, including Cambridge, the shift online has been very convenient. It has allowed them to trim the additional costs associated with teaching STEM subjects, which generally exceed tuition fees, and then make further cuts across the board. There is a great irony that Toope and his colleagues like to speak about preserving “academic rigour”, but in their pursuit of meticulously balanced budgets they have become themselves the main threat to what they wish to preserve.

Addendum: Just as I thought the University couldn’t possibly make things worse, they quite impressively managed to make things worse. The morning before this article was due to be published, I received an email from my DoS explaining that he had been informed that exams were to be held in-person but still using our own laptops and on the same clunky Inspera platform.

This is, quite frankly, the worst of all worlds and speaks to an unacceptable disconnect between the University’s bureaucracy and the students they are meant to serve. To spring this change on us with less than a month before exams is just breathtakingly incompetent: this wouldn’t be acceptable at a primary school, let alone at the University of Cambridge.