‘This is a work in progress’: Prof. Graham Virgo answers your questions on Easter assessments

We interview Prof. Graham Virgo

Today, The Cambridge Tab talked to Professor Graham Virgo, the Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education), following yesterday’s announcement on the exam arrangements for Easter Term. We asked questions submitted by students from a range of years and subjects:

Introduction from Prof. Graham Virgo, the Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education)

“Over the last fortnight we have been doing an awful lot of work discussing with faculties and departments because obviously there’s a lot of uncertainty. We had the deadline of march 31st to communicate to students. The intention was whatever we had, we would communicate at that point, consciously on the basis that that was fairly broad brush communication with a broad structure and ideas. Faculties and departments would be then communicating more specifically.

“Most now have communicated. But I want to make it absolutely clear that we know different students will have different circumstances studying different courses and combinations etc. So inevitably it is not going to be a statement that will cover every student. Loads of questions will arise or have been arisen. We are adopting an iterative approach, we are still very much in listening mode, consultation mode etc.”


1) “Why are the exam arrangements allowed to be so inconsistent between subjects? In HSPS we finalists only have a 5 hour window to complete the exams, while friends in other subjects have 24hrs or even a few days to complete an exam to the same standard as ours. This seems unfair – why has the University not intervened to create consistency?” – HSPS 3rd year student

“The approach we’ve adopted is that we issued some general guidance to faculties and departments to reflect on and asked them then to come up with their own proposal. What we have then done as a team is engaged with faculties and departments to ensure a degree of consistency. But the reality is we have a complete range of examining going on with different lengths and types of exams etc. We’re not going to impose they do it a particular way. What we have said is when a faculty wants to do online assessments, they are going to have to be open book. We’ve got no way we can proctor the assessment.

“Some subjects have wanted them to be time limited for a variety of reasons that they feel is appropriate. Others have said they don’t need it to be time limited – they don’t want people to be writing for 24hrs, so will advise say 3hrs but also impose a word limit. For HSPS a decision has been made there that they want to use a time limited assessment – longer than is normal because there may be some technical problems etc – but they’ve made the case that’s the kind of assessment they want.

“What we have said for online assessments are there are exceptions. There are two categories:

  1. Coursework where you have weeks.
  2. Assessments that have a 24hr window or 5hrs (because we feel that can be managed in moodle). There are some technical subjects (natural science, engineering) which will be even more time limited than that. So there is that degree of consistency, but really it was 24hrs or 5hrs we thought were the two models generally to adopt.


2) How is it fair only a small number of art subjects are continuing with assessments, while the rest have cancelled them? – MML 1st year student

“What we’ve insisted on is that every student has the opportunity for some assessment. It may be formative so that means everybody will get feedback – but it is there to help the students and not be on their transcripts. Some have said they want to have a summative assessment because they’re confident enough to be able to choose that.

For some of the professional subjects, it’s not actually a decision completely for the University. We’ve been engaging with professional bodies. Law students, medics, engineers for example because they have a professional requirements. There is no student who we are saying you haven’t got anything, even if it may be formative.”


3) “Why should we prioritise degree work that will not get marked over helping in our communities, i.e by working in supermarkets or as carers?” – MML 2nd year student

“So the general position we are adopting is that we are well aware of both the uncertainty and the priorities at the moment and over the next few weeks. Certainly we know there are going to be students who are going to be ill, who are going to have caring responsibilities or already do. What we’ve tried to do is do something that is as adaptable as possible.

“That said, we consider it to be really important that students continue with their education, and in some cases they have to do that for assessment purposes (professional subjects etc). What we’ve tried to do is to build in as much flexibility as possible. Particuarly for 1st yr and 2nd year students there is much more flexibility built in in terms of the nature of the assessment. In many cases there will be fewer assessments – and it will be formative or extended – therefore there’s a lot more flexibility built in. Certainly if a student feels that they want to engage in voluntary work of course they should do that.


4) “Oxford are implementing a safety net for all finalists. Why have you ruled integrated Master’s ineligible?” – Chemical Engineering 4th year student

“We are consulting on integrated Master’s students and the safety net. We’ll see where we go. There’s a lot of discussion about it. I’m getting a lot of emails on it.

“The issue is for Master’s students it is actually a distinct qualification. So those students who come through undergraduate and therefore have a third year result could have graduated and already have that result which would be the safety net. That’s a reason why the statement was as it was.

“We are still listening. I’m not guaranteeing anything because we’ve got to be fair to everybody. This is a work in progress we are still consulting and discussing. Certainly we are hearing from students and not ignoring them.”


5) “My exams are timed and open-book. Given that, in my subject, many questions are based on published papers, how will you ensure that the exam does not become a test of ‘who is the best at searching the literature and looking things up efficiently’?” – Chemistry 3rd year student

 “This is one of the big issues we are dealing with: How can we be sure that this a fair and appropriate assessment? What we have said is that we’re encouraging the online assessment, and actually for quite a few subjects it will be different – over 24 hrs, word limit etc – there will be a chance to test appropriately.

“For some of the more technical subjects we realise that is more difficult because quite often someone should get the right answer eventually. But a response to that is looking at other elements of the assessment as well and also of course we’ve got a safety net there. All the faculties and departments have been told they have to think hard about the method of assessment and whether they feel it will meet the learning outcomes. It’s not perfect, absolutely, but it would do as part of the whole package and I think that is important.”


6) “What guarantees and security for this year’s exams can you give finalists to whom the safety net is not applicable (e.g because they didn’t receive a grade last year)?” – HSPS 3rd year student

“We thought long and hard about that. If we have a third year student who was classed in the first year, but wasn’t classed in the second year – we didn’t feel they could go back to their first year class. This is the class that we are saying that can leave with.

“That said, we’re encouraging any student in that position to contact both their college and (where appropriate) the disability resource centre, because there are people there who can provide advice and guidance.”


7) “In what way does forcing MedVet students to stay isolated for the first half of the summer due to COVID-19 and also in the second half due to revision, protect students’ welfare and mental health?” – Medic 2nd year student

“I am not really in a position to answer that. I have received a number of messages this afternoon from medics and vets, particularly expressing concerns about the September bit. All I can say is I’ve heard, I’ve gone back to the medics and vets to ask what is the reason for this.

“I suspect (I don’t know) it might be because of professional requirement, but in some of the messages I’m hearing from students they’re saying other universities are acting differently. I’ve heard them and I’m going to find out more and we’ll get back to students.

“We need to check what the GMC requires and the Royal Veterinary College. Guidance is coming out quickly. We’re listening we’ll get back to them shortly.”


8) “How are you going to financially support every single one of the medical and veterinary students who won’t be able to work at their usual summer jobs due to the faculty’s idea to hold unnecessary September exams? Having to revise means that many students will be left without the jobs they need to fund their Cambridge living costs- this is further complicated by the ban on students having term time jobs.” – 2nd year Medic

“First, let’s see exactly what the position is with the assessment. We don’t know what is going to be happening over the next few weeks and months. Maybe we get to June, when many students are expecting to do summer jobs and it may not happen. The restrictions on movement etc may still be in place.

“All I can say on that more general position is that we’re already thinking about it and student financial hardship. There may be students facing financial hardship now. Maybe students are not yet but they’re looking ahead, relying on summer to get a job and money and may not be able to do that. We are working hard on a student financial hardship package. It is available already so any student who’s facing financial hardship – go to your colleges, colleges can help. There’s a university fund. We’re looking at doing what we can do to support that fund – we’re monitoring it.

“I know that the question was much more particular, but that financial hardship component is still there and they’ll be financial support available. But I’m going to look at whether there’ll be a September exam.”


9) “How will the second round of exams work – will it be the same exam given in this round? How will you determine who is allowed to partake in these exams?” – PBS 2nd year student

“The second assessment period is aimed at those students who are not able to take their assessments in the normal time for reasons such as they are ill, they have caring responsibilities, they simply can’t do the exam – we know there are some students in the UK and around the world who will not be able to sit the exam because they haven’t got internet or a home environment that enables them to take the exam. There may be other reasons as well.

“A way through that is another assessment period. We don’t know when that will be. We’ve said it will be when the University is fully operational. But that second assessment period would involve an assessment for most subjects which would be exactly the same method of assessment as the first assessment period. There are few Part III master’s courses that are doing something slightly differently but everyone will be using that second assessment period with a different method of assessment.

“We don’t know when that period is though. When the University is back in full operation, students might be able to take second assessments at home – they might be able to get to Cambridge or we might be able to find other places in the world for them to take the assessment. I know that’s vague but until we know when we’re back in operation and what the numbers are as well, we don’t know. It’s another form of safety net. We want people to realise if they can’t take the assessment next term, there are other opportunities available.”


10) “What happens to students with learning difficulties e.g dyslexia/ ADHD where they would normally get rest breaks or extra time. What are faculties and departments doing to factor that into their assessments?” – English 2nd year student

“The general guidance is going to be provided by the disability and resource centre and this will depend very much on the faculty/ department and the method of assessment they’re adopting. For quite a few students who normally would have reasonable adjustments, they wont need them because the method of assessment adopted is inclusive.

“But it’s not straightforward – the experts are providing the guidance because there are a number of students who need particular adjustments which may be more difficult to deliver depending on what those adjustments are. So I think that’s an example of one the issues with more discussion ongoing. Any student who is concerned should go to their college or the disability resource centre.”


11) “Who’s idea was it to film THAT youtube video? Was it awkward filming it?” – English 2nd year student

“Everyday we have an online meeting with the senior leadership team. We are very conscious from a staff perspective the massive adjustment that staff are having to take. We thought it might be quite a nice way to show we’re working from home as well; we’re having to adjust and this is just an idea of what we’re doing.

“I actually got my son and his girlfriend to come into my study and film it. And I will say if you look at that video closely there is a lamp just here and I purposely put on that lamp a medal that I was awarded when I ran in the Cambridge half marathon.”


Prof. Virgo’s final comments

“I am incredibly grateful for the hard work of a lot of people – the faculties, the departments, the education quality and policy office – really quite incredible how much work they’ve done. We have been examining in a particular way at Cambridge for hundreds of years and we are having to change our assessment in a fortnight. And that’s why we know we’re not going to get in right and there’s ambiguity and we’re still working what faculties and departments and students.”

Cover photo credit: Kohlrabi Pickle 

Related stories from this author:

Unprecedented indeed: Students react to exam arrangements

Part III chemists told ‘safety net’ will not apply to them, contradicting earlier emails amid exam chaos

Tab poll results: Cambridge students vote in favour of scrapping Easter assessments