Meet the student asking Cambridge University to reconsider COVID-19 exam arrangements in a powerful open letter

Finn Cormican is the Undergrad Rep for Arts and Humanities

The Tab speaks to Finn Cormican, the Undergraduate Representative to the Council of the School of the Arts and Humanities, about his open letter to the Chair of Arts and Humanities, Graham Virgo and Stephen Troope.

Finn Cormican’s open letter


Why did you decide to write a letter?

I wrote this letter because many students have expressed their concerns about the upcoming exam season. We’re all worried about teaching, supervisions, and even where we will be geographically in Easter term, but there is another level of anxiety when it comes to having our performance quantified, and how marks or even final degrees are going to be awarded.

There are so many variables at play at the moment that I just don’t think a normal or near-normal approach to assessment would accurately capture the quality of work. I also wrote it because I’m hopeful that the University will listen to student concerns – the vast majority of staff are trying to do the best that they can, and these issues are so immediate that they should be at the centre of all planning for next term.


What are the main points of the letter? 

The letter expresses some of the main concerns around alternative exam provision, especially take-home or online exams. Some students won’t have access to a safe and quiet place to work in their homes. Some will have had to leave Cambridge without the books and resources they need to revise and perform. Some need modified arrangements that might not be possible at home, and others will be unwell or have to look after those who are unwell.

I don’t think that in any of these cases students should be disadvantaged in the future because of factors that are out of their control. So I’m asking the University – though I’m glad to hear that they’re already considering a number of these things – to carefully consider how they restructure exams, degree classifications, failing mechanisms, class lists, and extenuating circumstances.

I would encourage others that agree, especially student reps, to air these concerns to their specific faculties and departments – doing so with the knowledge that staff themselves are anxious about the next few months and having to make difficult decisions.


Have you had any responses to the letter from the University? If so, have these, in your opinion, been adequate?

I had a really rapid response from Chris Young, the Chair of the School of Arts and Humanities. Although the School isn’t the final decision-making body on this subject, he will be involved with discussions. He’s been very forthcoming in talking to me on this issue. Though I did send it to their offices, he also forwarded it directly to the VC and PVC for Education. I was glad to hear at least one faculty, English, acknowledging that students’ circumstances will vary, and there will have to be some element of dealing with assessment on a ‘case-by-case basis’.

They’ve also been told to prioritise ‘all those due to graduate in the summer’, both UG and PG. Even as a 2nd year who was aspiring to move up a grade this year myself, I think given that those graduating will get a lasting mark that will stay with them, this is the right decision in a very difficult situation. I would expect a response from Profs Toope and Virgo, but this doesn’t have to be direct – as long as they acknowledge these vital concerns when planning the next few months.


What has the response been from students who have read the letter? / Any showing of support?

I’ve been grateful to hear stories from a number of students, including internationals who had to rush around Cambridge’s libraries trying to find as many useful books as possible, before getting on a plane with a 23kg luggage limit (for all their possessions, and all their study resources). I’ve also heard from students that need modified exam arrangements, who have had these concerns about online or take-home exams for weeks.

I’ve received specific support from Tom Cay, a Jesus College Students’ Union Welfare rep, as well as George Breckenridge, who was a member of the University Exams and Assessments Committee until earlier this year. George was also the Council rep for Physical Sciences in 2018-9, so we know these matters are relevant across disciplines.


In its most recent communication to students, the University said that its focus regarding examinations is ‘to maintain academic rigour; to ensure fairness; to enable learning outcomes to be met; to ensure that the assessment process is as simple as possible and to respond to the specific needs of students, particularly disabled students.’ What are your thoughts on this? 

Fairness is going to be the key point and the biggest challenge. There are so many variables in the global situation and students’ lives at the moment. I’m very pleased that they have explicitly mentioned disabled students, who may suffer disproportionately from the virus, and many of whom will need modified exam arrangements. But, just as one example, the University will struggle to provide scribes for remote exams.

Some students won’t have stable internet access, or could be in a completely different time zone. Many of us simply won’t be well enough to revise properly or sit a 3h30 exam. These are the kinds of ‘specific’ needs that will have to be taken into account, and these are the reasons why – however the faculties choose to structure exams if we don’t return for Easter term – many of Cambridge’s assessment practices need to be radically altered, simply out of compassion.


Cover photo credit: Finn Cormican