University of Southampton ‘ignores’ student vote for online exams

The University of Southampton says some online exams will go ahead this month, despite concerns from the university student union about the impact of Covid-19

The University of Southampton has rejected calls from its student union for all January exams to be held online. 

After the university announced earlier this week that “some in-person exams” will go ahead this January, the Southampton University Student Union (SUSU) released an open letter to the university’s vice-chancellor, Mark E. Smith, calling on him to reverse the decision. 

In the letter dated 12 January, student union president Ben Dolbear expressed “deep disappointment” at the university executive’s decision to go ahead with in-person exams despite, what he called, an overwhelming majority of students expressing concern.

The university said its stance on exams was within government guidelines, adding that a “significant number of exams will take place online”. 

The survey of Southampton’s 22,000 students received 7,500 responses: 95% favoured a return to online examinations. It took place after a petition by SUSU revealed growing worries about in-person exams.

Wrote Dolbear: “The number of students having to miss their examinations due to self-isolation is likely to be disruptively high. As such, we are expecting the university to receive a surge of special considerations requests, appeals, and calls for no-detriment mitigations, all of which will require significant resources from the university in coming months.”

“I very much hope that the university is able to recognise the strength of feeling among the student community, and agrees to the necessary change to January assessments that I am requesting on their behalf,” he added.

second letter was released by SUSU on 13 January after an email asking postgraduate students to cover for in-person exam invigilators dropping out due to Covid-fears surfaced. 

SUSU said an email from the university sent to postgraduate students said: “Despite our best efforts, invigilators are continuing to drop out due to sickness, isolation, or general reluctance to take on work currently.”

A spokesperson for Southampton University said: “The concerns raised by our students about in-person exams have been taken very seriously, as the safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is always our top priority.

“After extensive discussions, the university has decided that while a significant number of exams will take place online, some in-person exams will also take place as planned. This is in line with the government’s advice and expectation that on-campus activities can and should continue. The balance between online and in-person assessment has been carefully considered to ensure it is in the best interests of our students’ long-term education with us.

“We are taking every precaution to reduce any potential risks and will only use venues that have sufficient space to allow for our Covid safety measures to be put in place. We are confident that our in-person assessment arrangements are as safe as our in-person teaching arrangements.

“Assessments are always a time of anxiety, and we have a range of academic and pastoral support in place for our students. If anyone is unable to attend an in-person exam due to Covid, or self-isolation, there is a special considerations process they can follow.”

With cases of Covid-19 as high as they are right now this decision will mean that many students are not able to sit exams if they are isolating, and will be at greater risk of contracting the virus
Dr Alan Whitehead, MP

The union were also aware of student intention to not take a Covid-19 test before exams due to student fears of a delay in academic progression if tested positive – which could lead to a surge of Covid cases and greater levels of disruption at the university.

The union also stated the university’s unwillingness to accept Covid-related mental health issues or the desire to protect vulnerable loved ones as a valid reason for not attending in-person exams.

Many Russell Group universities have chosen to keep exams online this January.

The 12 January open letter featured this statement from the university’s local MP, Dr Alan Whitehead: “I have been contacted by a number of students and their representatives who are worried about the policy of having exams in person this January.

“With cases of Covid-19 as high as they are right now, this decision will mean that many students are not able to sit exams if they are isolating, and will be at greater risk of contracting the virus.”

Image via Flickr.

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