Online exams will disadvantage Durham students. They need to be scrapped

The playing field needs to be level – it’s not

Exams exist to test academic ability and academic ability alone. Their fairness is guaranteed by equal opportunity: same lectures, same revision period, same office hours available, same exam hall and same conditions in which to write. What they should not test is how well one can cope in an international crisis where everyone’s life is potentially at risk.

As of now, Durham University’s current plans for online summer assessments may be the most viable option, yet they are unfair and could potentially demean the value of our degrees. This is because they will put a significant number of students at a disadvantage when it comes to revision and the exam itself. Online exams should be heavily revised or scrapped altogether.

Take home exams favour those who have access to quiet working conditions. Even if the majority of students are lucky enough to be able to work undisturbed for up to three hours, there will undoubtedly be some who are not so fortunate. Despite being a minority, these students will be disadvantaged through their lack of access to a quiet working space and lack of an opportunity to perform well, something that would have been guaranteed by exams taking place in an exam hall. It goes without saying that their marks could be lower than those who are able to work undisturbed.

Simply enough, without all students being in the same room at the same time, the exam is not a fair assessment. Rather than testing academic ability alone, sit home exams suddenly test how lucky student’s circumstances are.

In addition to this, the University have seemed to ignore the fact that COVID-19 cases are expected to reach their peak in mid-June. In a Public Health England article, supported by England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, stated that: “As many as 80 per cent of the population are expected to be infected with Covid-19 in the next 12 months, and up to 15 per cent (7.9 million people) may require hospitalisation.”

Despite being a worst-case scenario, it is inevitable that many of us will be infected or will have to provide care for those who are infected. Instead of worrying about revision, many will worry about whether they can access hospital beds, whether they can go out to buy food without risking becoming infected themselves, and whether their loved ones with underlying health conditions will survive. Some students will therefore not have equal access to precious undisturbed revision time or even the ability to sit the exam itself if they are taken ill which will of course impact academic ability and final results. Those who do not suffer as such, will of course, be given an advantage.

Whilst SAC forms may provide an obvious response, they can do little when students may be too ill to even sit the exam in the first place and moreover do little to mitigate against the possibility of students cheating. There is simply no way any authority can ensure that no students are cheating or receiving external help in terms of proof reading, extra research and so on. This would leave the honest students who sit their exams within the recommended time scale and without external input at a disadvantage with potentially lower grades in comparison as a result. Whilst the University have not clarified how they will implement restrictions on cheating, it is very difficult to envisage how this will occur if it can occur at all.

There is no obvious solution to this situation. Turning all exams into summative may work for humanities students but cannot seem to apply to STEM students whose exam constitutes 100% of their final grade. The implementation of a safety net may harm students who planned on working extra hard this year to boos the overall result of their degree. There is no clear answer that satisfies all parties, yet this does not mean that we should accept an unfair solution, especially where that unfairness could constitute a disadvantage for hard working students who cannot help their situation. Even if some are at a disadvantage from the outset, the whole assessment, and perhaps our whole degree is devalued.

I believe I speak on behalf of the student body when I express my gratitude towards the University for efficiently dealing with the situation thus far. This is not an easy situation for anybody. However as students, we all deserve equal opportunity to sit an exam in conditions that allow us to perform our best. The current solution does not provide this.