At a COVID-19 question and answer session on Tuesday 17th November, the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Martin Williams, confirmed that there are no plans for a safety net policy for examinations taken this academic year, stating that we are “in a significantly different situation to last year” and “students engaged with alternative forms of assessment very well”.
Williams continued by stating that the University is “trying to make sure that what we are offering this year is a fair assessment and a level playing field for all students”. However, Declared to have Deserved Honours and Declared to have Deserved Masters degrees will still continue to be options for those who are “unable to take these assessments”. The previous safety net policy gave “faculties the choice of how results are calculated, with the option to exclude or adjust the weighing of results obtained in remote assessments” with the aim that no student should be “disadvantaged by the conditions in which they revise for and sit their exams in the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic”.
Williams also discussed the likelihood of alternative modes of assessments, including open-book exams or examinations sat remotely, saying “we think about two-thirds of exams will switch to an alternative format”, but that some for some courses, particularly those which deal with “mathematical problem-solving”, examinations should still be taken in person and invigilated traditionally.
Many questions were raised regarding plans for Hilary term. Professor Roger Goodman, the Co-Chair of the Hilary and Trinity Term Co-ordination Group, explained that the University is “still at the mercy of government regulations” regarding an in-person term, but that – barring government regulations – students should expect to return to their colleges in January. Explaining the University’s decision to make residency required rather than optional, Williams stated: “our feeling is that there is a lot more to being an Oxford student than just the face-to-face teaching”, including “access to labs, access to libraries, access to each other, to the opportunity to work in a scholarly environment”. Addressing those who are studying remotely this term after applying for an exemption to the residency requirements, he explained that “students who were granted a residency exemption this term [which he clarified to be before 1 November] will be able to roll that over to next term if they wish” but that he “would encourage students to return to Oxford if they can”.
Tuition fees and finances
Some students did raise the possibility of a tuition fee refund or reduction, citing lack of access to facilities under the current circumstances. Williams stated that he would “push back on the idea that the university is spending less on providing education this year” and that “at this stage, we are not considering any fee reductions”. Miles Young, the Warden of New College and Chair of the Conference of Colleges, continued that there has been a “huge extra cost”, including buying perspex and “ensuring that tutorials are delivered properly”, particularly “at a time when our revenues are absolutely diminished by loss of all sorts of revenue streams”, such as conferences and visiting students. He concluded: “The problem smaller colleges have is, frankly, finding a way to survive”.
Regarding the University’s overall response to the pandemic, Young was more positive, saying he “feel[s] reasonably comfortable that in Oxford we’ve handled the pandemic well, certainly in comparison to other universities”, helped by the collegiate system and the adoption of households within colleges. He continued that “the household system has been the reason we’ve managed to contain Covid… they have a price, which is the self-isolation of a larger group, but it’s a price I think is well worth paying”. However, he said that he hoped, over the vacation, colleges would consider their household arrangements so “friendship groups can migrate into households”.
The Pro-Vice-Chancellor praised the “really fantastic, constructive behaviour from [the] student body” and the slight drop in coronavirus cases. Professor Chris Conlon (Professor of Infectious Diseases, and Chair of the University Health Medical Advisory Group) elaborated on this, saying there has been “very little transmission of infection within departments and almost none within teaching spheres”.
Student responses to the webinar were mixed. While some were encouraged by the question and answer session, saying “thank you… all you’ve done so far, it’s really impressive”, another was far more damning, claiming that “communication has been terribly short-sighted, making planning impossible and increasing anxiety”.
Image Credit: Billy Wilson // Flickr. Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0.