Claire Sosienski-Smith, NUS Vice President (Higher Education)

@NUSUK (National Union of Students) has today (31 Mar) called for all non-essential formal exams to be cancelled for first- and second-year students, asking institutions to find flexible solutions to help these students progress to their next stage of learning.

Following government clarifications on GCSE’s, A-Levels and AS levels (20 March 2020) NUS believes no institution should be holding compulsory examinations, and there should be no non-essential exams and assessments, particularly for first and second years, who should be allowed to progress base on previous work, with a robust appeal process, and flexibility for those who feel this will disadvantage them.

NUS has been working hard with governing bodies, institutions and students’ unions, to ensure clarity for those students in further and higher education due to take their end of year exams and having consulted with its members, wants to see some stability for students who are experiencing different approaches across the four nations. An exam cancellation for first and second years would reduce anxiety amongst these students and allow institutions to focus effort on providing satisfactory assessment experiences for final year students.

Speaking for students Claire Sosienski-Smith, NUS Vice President (Higher Education) said:

“In the current climate, student welfare must come first. It is vital that there are no compulsory exams this year.

“Many students are unable to engage with their learning fully, due to a variety of factors, including lack of equipment to support distance learning, caring commitments, stress, anxiety and precarious housing. We know that disabled students are being hugely impacted by the pandemic, facing the loss of both university-provided and NHS support, a lack of reasonable adjustments to access online teaching, as well as struggles with accommodation. We’re therefore calling for practice which is motivated by student welfare and student choice, giving students control over their education, ensuring progression and completion when they desire it.

“We know that there is work ongoing with the PSRBs to discuss maintaining training and standards, and we hope that these discussions focus on student welfare first and foremost. We also want to see special consideration and flexibility given for students whose grades rest on final practical assessments, which would be impossible to conduct remotely and are reliant on access to facilities and materials.

“For many final year students, both undergraduates and taught postgraduates, the stakes are much higher, and it is vital that each of these students is given a choice on how to proceed with their education. We’ve put forward possible options which we believe will enable students to make a choice which is best for them.”

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NUS’ proposed options for final year assessments are as follows: 

  • Final year students can choose to complete and graduate with a grade given based on their prior attainment
  • Some final-year students may not feel that a grade based on their current performance will be an adequate reflection of their ability. If they want to graduate or complete their courses this academic year and want the opportunity to take an exam or submit a dissertation, they should be given this through a redesigned, open-book exam format or a flexible submission deadline. This should take place at home. We know that these exams will not reflect previous formats but should be used to assess learners on topics they have learnt about
  • Students who wish to, should have the option to extend their time in education to complete their degrees. This could mean deferring this term to take place in the Autumn. This should be at their own discretion and made possible through self-certification. It should absolutely be at no cost to the student, and further discussions should begin on the financial support available for students to do this.

“It is vital that no student is disadvantaged by COVID-19,” continues Miss Sosienski-Smith,

so we welcome the approach that many institutions are taking to provide students who do take exams with a 'safety net' or 'no detriment policy.' We would like to see this in place wherever a student has decided to take an exam or submit assessed work during this time.  Students should be guaranteed that if they get a lower grade than that indicated by their previous work, they will be awarded the higher grade for their year's work.

“There is significant concern about submission deadlines among postgraduate research students, so we believe that all research students should be granted a minimum six month, funded, extension to their submission deadlines to make up for lost research time and disruption to their work. Any student who has to pause their work due to COVID-19 should remain funded during their interruption.”

“Across the board, institutions should take this opportunity to implement better practices in assessing students on work completed through the entirety of their courses, rather than one-off exams, and learn from this in their future teaching. The diversity of the higher education sector and its students means that there can be no one size fits all approach to exams and assessment.

“We are working through an exceptional set of circumstances and urge institution leaders and sector regulators to show flexibility and compassion for students and staff as we navigate it. In education, we are most effective when we work together, and we urge institutions to work in strong partnership with their students’ unions to ensure that students are at the heart of solutions, we are all working to protect student welfare and that first and foremost the voices of the most impacted students are not lost during this crisis.”

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