With every new email from vice and pro-vice chancellors, it looks like Oxford is planning to provide undergraduates with Trinity Term’s full workload and exams, but remotely. While the logistics of how this would work thus far remain undecided, the University’s final decision will face many challenges.
The coronavirus outbreak will inevitably affect the physical health of students. A significant percentage are likely to contract the illness, forcing many students to miss multiple exams or assignments, and that’s far from the worst-case scenario. Remote learning may also negatively affect the mental wellbeing of many students. The typical full workload will likely still be demanded but without any of the welfare programmes which Oxford offers, or the social life which can make the workload tolerable. Furthermore, remote examinations rely on every student having access to a computer with an internet connection, in a silent room. This is, of course, impossible for many students.
In my view, Oxford has two options. The first: cancelling Trinity entirely and continuing from where we left off in Michaelmas 2020. Exams could be taken during Michaelmas rather than Trinity in the future, with the academic year beginning in January rather than October. This would have the positive future effect of allowing Oxford to interview and to make offers after A-Level results are announced in August, rather than making conditional offers in January. Conditional offers are currently based upon unreliable predicted grades, meaning the University must estimate how many students will miss their grades.
Option 1 would also provide finalists with more time to revise ( they would be able to study during the long summer vacation rather than the Easter vacation) and allow all those with end-of-year exams the opportunity to enjoy sunny Trinity term with slightly less stress. This change would, however, need be carried out in conjunction with other British universities in addition to UCAS, in order to bring timings in sync. Despite this, such a change would make sense in the long-run and the current outbreak is a great opportunity to switch from the old calendar to the new.
It may be overly optimistic to assume that university will be able to resume in time for Michaelmas. An Imperial College study suggests that the outbreak may continue for up to eighteen months, with a second wave of the virus possible in the winter. If this outbreak follows the expected trend, the economy will all but shut down, and there will not be much of a jobs market waiting for finalists.
The issues with remote teaching will only be perpetuated over time. As such, it may be sensible for the University to go for option 2: something similar to a group rustication, where studies are suspended for a year and then Trinity 2021 picks up from where Hilary Term 2020 left off. Group rustication would be the default option, with students perhaps choosing to opt-out due to a good reason, based upon the likelihood of the pandemic continuing. This option may be difficult to decide upon now, but Oxford choosing option 2 would certainly set a good precedent for other universities to do the same, and it may be necessary given the projected span of coronavirus. Either way, both of the above options are better than the remote teaching and examining which is currently planned. The University should at least consider them, even if they may seem inconvenient in the short term.