Finalists at Oxford have been compiling an Open Letter directed to Professor Martin Williams, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education at Oxford University, concerning their final exams in light of the Covid-19 outbreak. It has received over 1,200 signatures in one day.

Their central appeal is “that the University allows student choice with regard to the upcoming assessments.” They urge that students are given options on how they will be assessed that consider the varying ways the pandemic affects each student.

The letter emphasises that “imposing any one formula on the entire student body will unfairly disadvantage a significant number of its members as the pandemic affects us all differently.”

The Open Letter comes as a response to the Pro-Vice-Chancellor’s statement, sent to all Oxford students via email on Tuesday 17th of March, wherein he confirmed “that wherever possible, teaching and learning will be moved to an online format” and “that planned written paper examinations will not go ahead in their normal format in Trinity term.” Instead, they intend to replace traditional exams with “an online approach.”

Finalists have raised issues of access and equality regarding this “online approach”. The letter lists various different situations that display the inequality inherent to remote exams: “For instance, some students may not have a quiet environment in their homes to take a timed online exam and would prefer take-home exams. Yet others may need to take care of their ailing family members and have to delay their exams entirely.”

They present three main suggestions for examination arrangements: remote, postponed and cancelled assessments. Under each option, the Open Letter provides different assessment arrangements ideas.

For students wishing to be assessed remotely, the Open Letter suggests an array of options: “Open-book exams completed online with conventional time limits; Vivas through video-conference; A portfolio of essays; coursework that replaces exams”.

For students wishing to postpone their assessment, they suggest “postponing exams and coursework deadlines until social distancing and quarantine measures have been sufficiently relaxed” or “giving finalists the option to restart the year in Michaelmas 2020, Trinity 2021”.

For those “unable to undertake any further assessment at all in light of circumstances”, they suggest either receiving a grade based on previous work (for example: tutorials, grades already achieved, and previously submitted work) or “Graduating ‘declared to have deserved honours’ with an unclassified degree”.

In response to the Open Letter, Prof. Martin Williams told Cherwell: “I appreciate the considered and constructive tone of the Oxford Finalists letter and as rightly noted in the content the pandemic is having a huge effect on students who have been forced into an academic limbo through no fault of their own, and I sympathise.

“Without question these are extraordinary times that are having unprecedented impact on the way we live. There are a lot of unknowns for us all but the University is working hard to alleviate some of the stress and uncertainty that our students are feeling and will provide more information to our community about Trinity term teaching and exams in the next few days as the situation becomes clearer.”

The letter highlights a precedent for option in the English Faculty at Cambridge University’s creation of a “2020 Tripos Survey for Part II students”, where Cambridge English finalists could voice their preferred options from a discrete list. Nevertheless, the Letter urges for an even more flexible approach to arranging new forms of assessment.  

One of the creators of the Open Letter, Luci Dennewill told Cherwell: “this is an anxious time for all of us finalists, and we are looking to make our voices heard and get clarity on the exam situation

“We understand that this is a really difficult decision for the university administration and the various faculties to make, so we didn’t want the letter to be an airing of grievances but rather a constructive expression of what we see as a feasible solution. We want to make sure our concerns are considered and that the solution the university arrives at is beneficial to as many finalists as in any way possible.” 

Zhenghong Lieu stresses that the letter is not a “list of demands”, but is “merely a non-exhaustive list of suggestions for the University to consider”, highlighting the conciliatory tone of the letter that understands that “these are extraordinarily difficult times for all”, students and the Univerisity alike.

Luci Dennewill, who co-wrote the letter with Zhengohong Lieu, emphasises the collective effort behind the Open Letter: “we had a lot of help from other finalists who wanted to make the project work”.

Similarly, hundreds of Cambridge students have signed an Open Letter calling for finals to either be postponed or for finalists to retake their final year.

For more clarification or comment on Oxford’s Open Letter contact either Luci Dennewill or Zhengohong Lieu.

Photography By Ellie Wilkins