UPDATE 21st April 2021.
Since posting, the Guardian reported on Sunday 18th April 2021 what we all feared with ‘Rise in students asking to repeat year after campus shutdowns’. This comes as little surprise as anxiety about online exams rises fast with there being little point in returning to campus after the 17th May this term. The National Union of Students has called for funding to allow students to repeat the year if they have been disadvantaged. Universities will have to take such requests very seriously. However, with student numbers set to rise in 2021, this will become a major problem.
With students only allowed to return to university campuses from the 17th of May, the announcement comes far too late to change much. Most examinations will start in early May and will be online. Returning to campus will seem a pointless exercise for most students. The added anxiety of sitting exams will be more acute for first year students who will not have sat a formal examination since GCSEs (or National 5 examinations in Scotland). Universities have worked hard to mitigate the impact on students, but they are working in the dark on what amounts to a big experiment. With some removing the ‘no detriment’ policies deployed last year, they are taking a big risk with online examinations. Not all students will have the same environment to work in and the inequalities could be further magnified.
The decision this week by the Government in England to allow students back on campus from 17th May 2021 came too late and offers little in the way of solace or encouragement (13th April 2021 ‘Remaining university students to return to campus from Step 3 of the roadmap, no earlier than 17 May’). Home testing for the virus will have to happen to ensure some sort of protection against the spread of coronavirus. Along with testing on campus, this is planned for all students and staff and itself is a major logistical exercise. However, the simple fact is that most universities will have started their end of year examinations by mid May and the majority of those will be online. This means most students will not need to return to their campus at all this academic year. Instead, many will be sitting it out at home if they can. Some will not be so fortunate, and they will have to seek out a better environment in which to attend online examinations. Access to a separate room with good internet access may only be possible on campus and universities will have to reach out to help students with this. It will become an additional challenge for students with fewer advantages or resources.
Although not as clearly promoted, there are broadly the same arrangements elsewhere in the UK. In Scotland, students will return to a more blended model of learning. In Wales, students have already returned to a mixture of face-to-face and online study. For Northern Ireland students, most courses will remain online.
The Office for Students (OfS) provides a very helpful list of advice with ‘Returning to university in 2021’
Exam stress and isolation.
Exam stress has been around for as long as there have been examinations. However, the COVID-19 crisis means this is exacerbated for students who are feeling isolated and ill prepared, despite the many efforts made by universities. Recently, Universities UK reported their growing concerns about deteriorating student mental health (10 March 2021 ’University mental health teams 'plugging the gaps' in NHS services’. This is more formally backed up by the latest Office for National Statistics (OFS) data release on the matter (7th April 2021 ‘Coronavirus and higher education students: 12 March to 22 March 2021’) that shows mental health and wellbeing remain important ongoing issues. But the ONS data will not have picked up the full effect of exam panic as it rises in the coming weeks.
Despite this warning, universities are pushing on and the majority have already opted for online examinations this summer. They had to make this decision very early to fully inform their students in plenty of time. Uncertainty about a return date meant that this was inevitable. With teaching mostly online so far, there is a crucial communications link missing for staff and students who are effectively working in the dark. It becomes a big experiment that may or may not work well on students unused to such assessment or, as in recent times, have no recent experience of exam assessments.
They will need plenty of preparation and help in the run up to what is very difficult to organise online. Instead of being locked in the same room and asked the same questions to be answered over the same amount of time, they will be examined in a variety of different situations. The exams may be timed equally but some will have a clear advantage in their circumstances than others. Fear of loss of internet links, or being disturbed, will be a real problem for many. Most universities have sought to mitigate this by setting online tests and reading throughout the year and will have a record of student engagement to fall back on. But the online ‘experience’ has not been a good one in replacing face-to-face encouragement and peer support. The extra pressure on staff has also taken its toll. My experience of teaching online before Christmas was extremely worrying. Acting as a remote ‘talking head’ with slides for hundreds of first year students is no substitute for being in the same room. There it is possible to detect any disquiet or puzzled looks in plenty of time and adjust the lecture. Questions can be answered interactively for all to hear and a short discussion with students looking for more help afterwards can deflect issues from becoming bigger. Instead, online is a dark place for effective communication. The online Q and A was used but it seemed sterile and offered me no real-time feedback.
Students who soldier on without seeking help was never uncommon and the fear is that many will have done this throughout the academic year so far. It is only with exams looming that that a ‘brick wall’ comes into sight. This can bring considerable dangers.
The third anniversary of tragic loss of first year student Ben Murray at Bristol University in May 2018 is almost upon us. It should be reminder about how things can go badly wrong for students new to a university. His death was a pivotal point in reminding all university managements and staff of their responsibilities in the face of increasing numbers of students finding the pressure too much (TEFS 2nd May 2019 ‘Bristol University student death: Inquest raises many concerns’). Ben struggled to adjust and engage with his degree course and, unknown to his parents, he had received an email from the university asking him to withdraw before the examinations. Like many students before and since, the examinations loom like a cliff that seems impossible to climb. There were options for him if he asked for more help, but it was too late. Now, it must be a prescient warning to treat students with considerable caution and sensitivity.
Students asking to suspend studies and repeat the year.
On Tuesday of this week the Independent reported the results of a survey of 2000 students that took place in January (‘40 per cent of students 'seriously considered' dropping out of university during pandemic, poll suggests’). The poll was carried out by Studiosity and Red Brick Research and the data is not publicly available. However, they report that 80% found “the pandemic had impacted their education in a negative way” and 40% “saying they have considered quitting university”. This revelation would have set alarm bells ringing sooner if it had been reported earlier. Instead, the perception was different.
As the academic year progressed it became clear by Christmas that the majority of students were holding their nerve and pressing on with their studies. It seems they had a Hobson’s choice between unemployment or soldiering on. Yet this may have been a poor strategy for those finding it difficult to keep up with their studies online. The Student Loan Company (SLC) released data in December 2020 that indicated there had not been an increase in numbers withdrawing from their degree compared with 2019. This would have been a bad decision for most students anyway and suspending their studies until 2021 would be a better choice as they would only incur a 25% fees penalty and could return. A freedom of information request from TEFS later revealed that there had not been a significant increase in students seeking to suspend their studies either (TEFS 4th December 2020 and update 23rd December 2020 ‘Turn up, log in, drop out…… suspend studies?’).
Unfortunately, for some who fear the exams now, this may have been the wrong thing to do. A sizeable number will have entered university ill prepared and armed with school exam grades that might have over predicted their ability to cope with studying in isolation. Worse still, they found they were quickly relegated to doing everything online with limited support possible. By pressing on, they may have been simply postponing the inevitable and not considering the outcome. Many students only panic as they near their examinations. However, this is not evenly spread across the year cohorts. Those in their final year will have experience of on-campus examinations in 2019 and be better equipped to cope. Those in their final or penultimate year will have some experience of an online assessment last year. First year students will be the most exposed to what will be a leap in the dark for them.
No detriment policies.
With the cancellation of university examinations gathering pace last summer, most universities adopted a ‘no detriment’ policy to mitigate the effects of lockdown and loss of learning resources. However, this will not be the case for many students this year. Those completing their first year will not have sat examinations since their GCSEs (or National 5 examinations in Scotland). With A-levels and Highers determined by teacher assessments, the lack of exam readiness may begin to tell. Many universities have adapted their courses to include more structured reading assignments and ongoing tests. It is also likely that deadlines have been stretched a long way to accommodate students who find they are falling behind. For staff, it is a massive ongoing experiment as they seek to make the adjustment. This approach is adopted in the hope that ‘no detriment' policies are not needed. However, it must be remembered that finding time to study is a resource that some students do not have enough of. This was always the case. Completing assignments on time was never a fair and equitable way to assess students who commute or are diverted into part-time jobs, or both (TEFS 23rd August 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Commuter students and their working patterns’). Working from home with few resources, little personal space and poor internet access became another source of inequality over the year.
In March the TAB ‘Revealed: These unis still haven’t given their students a no detriment policy’ (4th March 2021). Seventeen were listed but this was probably an underestimate. In January, the Russell Group of 24 universities announced that it did not think ‘no detriment’ policies are “necessary or appropriate this year”. The aim was to ensure fairness but also “to upholding the quality and the integrity of our degrees”. There has been considerable criticism from student unions across the sector, but this seems to be falling on deaf ears in some quarters.
Financial worries and stresses have been major problems for the minority of students over many years. Yet too often this aspect has been skirted around with a general assumption that families can always support their children through university. Unfortunately, this is often not the case and problems mount up. The last year has magnified this with the government in England slow to react, (TEFS 11th September 2020 ‘Government response to digital poverty, job losses, and student hardship: A £21 million cut to its support’). However, behind the headline of the 17th May return date, was the lesser reported government recognition that there is a shortfall in student hardship funding. This should have been recognised earlier but at least there is some extra support at a late stage with “The Government has made available an additional £15 million in hardship funding to support those students most in need, such as those struggling to pay accommodation costs due to the pandemic. International and postgraduate students will be eligible for this funding along with domestic undergraduates.” It seems to have taken a long time for this to sink in.
For any readers feeling they might need advice or help, do not wait to ask for help. You will not be alone. The BBC Action Line lists a number of very useful helplines. Specifically for students, there is Student Minds, the UK's student mental health charity.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.