Cambridge’s exam mitigations are ignoring the realities of bereavement many students are facing

Many students have lost loved ones, and the university’s response to this is inadequate

CN:// This article discusses bereavement, especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and its implications on mental health. There are also discussions of the university’s exam mitigations and failure to properly respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Covid has made the last year an incredibly challenging time for us all, with students being particularly hard hit. However, for many, not only have they had to deal with the stresses of online learning, working from home, and the mental health challenges brought on by lockdown, but they have also been met with the grief of losing a loved one. 

In the UK alone, 126,000 people have died from COVID-19, contributing to the over 2.62 million deaths worldwide. Behind each of these statistics is a grieving family, or an individual experiencing loss for the first time. Indeed, a recent study by the University of Cambridge has estimated that “for every death, nine people are affected by bereavement”. In particularly challenging circumstances, such as those presented by the pandemic, this grief is described as being “extensive”. In pre-pandemic times, such grief affected 10-20% of adults, but the pandemic has given rise to incidents of “extensive”, or “complex” grief.

Alongside rising cases of “extensive” grief, secondary losses are expected to become more significant. Secondary losses are the realisations that come after the initial registering of a loss and usually become more apparent over time, such as when former traditions or activities are no longer possible. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that more and more students are experiencing bereavement away from their support network, the university must recognise the significant long-term implications brought on by loss in such exceptional circumstances.

These realities of bereavement are being insufficiently answered by the university’s exams preparations. Current counselling guidance for students experiencing loss lists “shock” and “fatigue” amongst the emotions experienced in mourning, and recommends taking things slowly, or speaking to others, as ways to try and cope. However, many students feel that their workload and exam prospects are not being sufficiently adapted to allow them to make use of this advice.

To enable students to register what they have been through, the option to have grades awarded without sitting exams is crucial, allowing students to recover at their own rate.

Following a Camfess in which a student anonymously expressed their frustration at the university’s response to those who have suffered the loss of a loved one during the pandemic, more students have opened up about the need for greater support from Cambridge for students who are grieving for those they have lost during this incredibly tough, and utterly unprecedented time.  Expecting students to be able to cope with the massive Cambridge workload is unrealistic, and trivialises the daunting and unfamiliar emotions that students will be daily be confronted with. 

Having heard from bereaving students first-hand, it is clear that for many the University’s mitigation procedures need to be adapted to deal with the unique challenges of the pandemic, as well as to help students feel supported as they go through the incredibly difficult stages of loss and bereavement. 


(Photo credits: Author’s own screenshot from Camfess)

The University’s current mitigation procedures

The current exams allowance application process investigates the cases of students who “due to medical or other grave cause, have been prevented from taking examinations.” The main type of exam allowance is “DDH”, or “declared to have deserved honours”, meaning that on the basis of evidence, the student’s class is recognised to be an unfair reflection of their true abilities. 

Alternatively to DDH, students may be “allowed the examination”, even if they have not met all of the usual requirements. The note of “allowed the examination”, would be declared alongside the student’s overall result, and may not be acceptable for some professional qualifications. 

As another option, students exams may be “put in standing”, thereby enabling the student to move onto the next examination, even if they haven’t achieved the usual threshold for doing so. Under this type of exam allowance, Part II students who achieved honours in their previous exams may be awarded an Ordinary BA. 

All these different exam allowance options do helpfully give students whose exams have been impacted “by medical or grave cause” an element of choice in determining what support works best for them. However, the reality is that these options do not work for everyone (especially students on vocational courses), and many grieving students do not want to have DDH or intermit, and would prefer a greater range of choice in choosing what works for them.

It is perfectly possible to do well in the job market with a lower class degree and a DDH (plenty of grads do it every year), but the reality is this can put you at a disadvantage. Nowadays, many larger businesses (think banks, law firms, tech companies) use automated screening at the initial application stage with requirements often being a 2:1 or above.

Of course, there is always space on applications to let employers know of a DDH, but it is questionable whether firm (or their selection algorithm) will look as kindly upon this sort of application as someone with a first-class degree, for example. It also leaves graduates in a position where they are always having to explain themselves just to have the same chance that others with higher-degree classes are given in job application processes. Every year, more and more students are going to university and differentiating yourself in a cut-throat job market is already hard enough without feeling that you’re starting every application one step behind. Students who are experiencing bereavement should not be disadvantaged for reasons out of their control. 

Criticising the current mitigation options available to students, Anna McKeon, the President of Student Minds Cambridge, explained that: “the result is the very patchy mitigations system we now have, which penalises some students for their subject choice and others for struggling to have their voices heard.” 

For these students, more needs to be done to provide alternative options for exam mitigation, to ensure that bereaved students, already suffering so much, can at least hope for some stability, support, and freedom of choice in choosing the exam options that suit them best. This likely includes the option for students to sit out their exams, with new measures being introduced to award a representative grade on the basis of work produced throughout the year. 

The need to update procedures to reflect the pandemic

Whilst current guidance rightly recognises that mitigating circumstances, created by a “grave cause”, may be both “unanticipated”, and “entirely beyond a student’s control”, in the midst of a pandemic, such procedures need updating if they are to accurately reflect as well as understand how these are not only “unanticipated” times to study in, but to grieve in too. 

Whilst previous years will also have seen students experiencing bereavement, the realities of Covid-19 mean that more and more of us are having to go through this grieving process from a distance, away from the people that we care about and without a close support network to help us through. 

The use of student support services 

Current counselling guidance for students experiencing loss lists “shock” and “fatigue” amongst the emotions experienced in mourning, and recommends taking things slowly, or speaking to others, as ways to try and cope. However, many students feel that their workload and exam prospects are not being sufficiently adapted to allow them to make use of this advice, and “take things slowly”, in order to look after themselves, and their family. 

What’s more, whilst vocalising how you are feeling is a crucial step in registering death, students have expressed a wariness in talking to the university about what they are going through, especially if this involves having conversations about very raw and sensitive topics, that may not even result in adequate mitigation measures being introduced. 

Stress from having to relate traumatic experiences as evidence for the need for support 

Current processes risk putting students into the position of having to relive reliving an incredibly traumatic experience, wherein giving evidence to the University for mitigation, they somehow have to prove their level of grief in order to get the support they need. 

This exposes the issues raised in asking students to “argue their own cases”, to receive support from their colleges and can be emotionally draining for students.

A possible way forward is to allow college approval for mitigation measures to be obtained through a dedicated external individual trained in dealing with such issues. Having a detached figure could be especially constructive as studies have shown that experiences of shame and feeling stigmatized by the death of a loved one are common among the bereaved and can be more prominent depending on the cause of death. Therefore, it is understandable why students may not feel comfortable discussing these issues with those (e.g. DOS or tutor) so tightly connected to their current, and future, academic lives. The university must act soon to stop its inability to act from having significant future consequences. 

Further to the deficiencies in suitable mitigation measures, an issue lies in the way that students are required to disclose potentially sensitive information to academic figures. The mitigation proceedings require the approval of college, and often this can only be gained through an explanation of the situation to your DOS or tutor; something very intimidating for students dealing with some of the most challenging experiences of their lives. 

This has again been brought to the attention of  Student Minds Cambridge, with the President, Anna McKeon, criticising how “communication with students to develop mitigation arrangements has on the whole been poor, with the burden placed heavily on student representatives to ‘make the case’ as well as on individual students to consult with their DoSes.”

Although we would like to think we are heading towards the tail end of the worst of Coronavirus (in the UK, at least) there is no doubt it has been and will continue to be, a huge emotional – and potentially financial – burden on many students and their families. 

Comparing February 2020 and February 2021, the number of Camfess posts needing a content warning has more than quadrupled (from five to 24), which just shows the extent to which students are experiencing particular levels of hardship during this time. Students are already struggling and the pandemic only makes the bereavement process harder, whether it is self-isolation exacerbating feelings of loneliness during these tough times or government regulations preventing meetings with friends and family to grieve together. The pandemic provides a great challenge to bereaved students, and greater adaptation is needed (both at the college and university level) to support these students.

Ultimately, all of the current mitigation measures fall short in giving students the opportunities to sit out of exams completely, only really offering delay. This isn’t enough. Grieving takes time, and in the case of losing a close family member when you are still young yourself, this is an even bigger challenge. 

Cambridge is an intense, and often overwhelming place, even at the best of times. The key thing in improving the treatment of grieving students whilst at the university is in removing the stigma that often surrounds students who seek help. Whilst college nurses and counsellors often do brilliant work, and as understanding and as kind as tutors and other staff may be, the wider system needs to change. If Cambridge has research to prove the impact of grief during the pandemic, why has the university failed to implement the necessary mitigation measures?

Support from staff and students is fundamental, but without wider reform, bereaved students are still left needing more. 

Resources available for students who have been affected by issues raised in this article: 

Student Minds Cambridge

A guide put together by the Cambridge University Counselling Service on grief and bereavement as a result of Covid-19

Cambridge mental health workshops

Cruse bereavement care

Hope Again – a blog for young people living after loss

NHS bereavement audio leaflet

The University Press Office was contacted for comment. 

Featured image credit: Alexander Czuperski via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons License) and author’s own screenshot from Camfess 

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Cover image credit: Khalid Guma’a