Leading universities keep summer exams online because of Covid ‘dangers’

·4-min read
University of Cambridge - Nicholas T Ansell/PA Wire
University of Cambridge - Nicholas T Ansell/PA Wire

Leading universities are keeping most exams online this summer, citing the “dangers” posed by Covid, despite wider society returning to normal.

Thousands of undergraduates sitting end-of-year exams this month are being allowed to do so from home with the aid of revision materials.

Months after Britain’s last Covid restrictions were ditched, analysis by The Telegraph found online exams remained at institutions including Cambridge, St Andrews, Durham and Exeter. Government Covid guidance for campuses was withdrawn in April.

It has prompted fears that the Russell Group campuses are dumbing down by permanently moving away from closed-book traditional exam halls, which were the norm before the pandemic and required students to rely on memory.

At Cambridge, more than 1,000 of the 3,000 summer exams on the final term timetable are listed as an “online assessment test” taking place over the next two months.

At Durham, all students have been told that “the majority of examinations will be offered online, with a smaller number held in person” in May and June.

They have been advised that they will “normally” have 24 hours to complete their exam, although they are advised only to spend several hours on it for their well-being.

In Durham’s English department, guidance seen by the Telegraph claimed the choice to stick with online exams was “in response to the continuing dangers posed by the global pandemic of Covid-19”, despite schools across the country having returned to in-person exams.

At St Andrews, every exam on the 28-page university-wide summer 2022 timetable is online, bar a small number for which locations are not specified.

‘Free to consult your lecture notes’

Its guidance says these “will be ‘open book’, meaning you are free to consult your lecture notes, books and other resources”, while others will be “take-home-style exams” of up to eight hours, including “rest breaks [and] meals”.

Meanwhile, Exeter’s timetable says “the majority of May 2022 exams will take place online”.

Arabella Skinner, of the parent campaign group UsForThem, said: “Once again universities are using Covid as an excuse and clearly not putting the educational needs of their students first.

“To argue that Covid makes it impossible for universities to offer in-person exams, when all over the country school pupils are physically sitting their public exams is outrageous.

“Some of the students taking online finals have never sat an in-person exam in their entire university career. Second-year students whose last in-person exam was their GCSEs in 2018 will be woefully underprepared for their final exams next summer.”

Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “Assessment and evaluation is changing fast in education, including through the rollout of new technology.

“But there need to be clear and proven educational benefits for any new approaches, such as 24-hour open-book online exams. Students and employers will get frustrated if it is mainly about Covid or cost-cutting.”

Fears over risk of rise in cheating

As they have emerged from the Covid crisis, some universities have faced strong opposition from students over attempts to ditch online assignments, while other vice-chancellors over-subscribed on A-level results days during the pandemic, meaning space on campus is tight.

Cambridge Students’ Union surveyed almost 500 students last year, with half saying their experience of exams improved when they shifted online in lockdown, and 62 per cent saying traditional pre-pandemic end-of-year exams harmed their mental health.

Others fear online exams open the door to a higher risk of cheating. Dr Daniel Sokol, an education barrister, said collusion had become “endemic” during the pandemic, with some entire student households caught cheating.

A Durham University spokesman said its assessment was “rigorous and thorough”, adding: “Students have been issued with clear guidance for undertaking exams remotely and made aware that breaches of university regulations carry serious consequences.”

A University of Cambridge spokesman said “all decisions are based on delivering the most effective examinations”, with some analytical, critical and problem-solving skills exams online and others testing knowledge retention or mathematics in person. “Standards remain as high as they always have been,” the spokesman said.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting