Major universities are keeping most exams online this summer, citing the “dangers” posed by Covid, despite wider society returning to normal.
Thousands of undergraduate students taking year-end exams this month are allowed to do so from home using review materials.
Months after Britain’s latest Covid restrictions were dropped, analysis by The Telegraph has found online exams remain at institutions including Cambridge, St Andrews, Durham and Exeter. Government Covid guidelines for campuses were withdrawn in April.
It has raised fears that Russell Group campuses may be dumbing down by permanently moving away from the traditional closed-book exam halls that were the norm before the pandemic and forced students to rely on memory.
At Cambridge, more than 1,000 of the 3,000 summer exams in the calendar for the last term 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 exams will be offered online, with a smaller number in person” in May and June.
They have been told that they will “normally” have 24 hours to complete their exam, although they are advised to only allow a few hours for their well-being.
In Durham’s English department, advice seen by the Telegraph claimed the choice to stick to online exams was ‘in response to the continuing dangers posed by the global Covid-19 pandemic’, despite the return from schools across the country to in-person exams.
At St Andrews, every exam in the university-wide 28-page Summer 2022 Calendar is online, except for a small number for which locations are not specified.
‘Free to consult your course notes’
Its guidelines state that these will “be ‘open book’, meaning you are free to consult your lecture notes, books and other resources”, while others will be “take-away exams” of a maximum duration of eight hours, including “rest breaks”. [and] meal”.
Meanwhile, Exeter’s timetable says “the majority of exams in May 2022 will take place online”.
Arabella Skinner, of 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 claim that Covid is preventing universities from offering in-person exams, while across the country students in schools are physically taking their public exams is outrageous.
“Some of the students taking the finals online have never taken an in-person exam in their entire college career. Sophomores whose last in-person exam was their GCSEs in 2018 will be woefully under-prepared for their final exams next summer.
Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “Assessment and assessment are changing rapidly in education, not least through the deployment of new technologies.
“But there must be clear and proven educational benefits for any new approach, such as 24-hour open-book online exams. Students and employers will be frustrated if it is mainly about Covid or reduction of costs.
Fears of increased risk of cheating
Coming out of the Covid crisis, some universities have faced strong student opposition to attempts to drop online assignments, while other vice-chancellors have oversubscribed level results days A during the pandemic, which means space on campus is tight.
Last year the Cambridge Students’ Union surveyed nearly 500 students, half of whom said their exam experience had improved when they moved online during lockdown, and 62 per cent said traditional pre-pandemic end-of-year exams were damaging their mental health.
Others worry that online exams open the door to a higher risk of cheating. Education lawyer Dr Daniel Sokol said collusion had become “endemic” during the pandemic, with entire student households caught cheating.
A spokesperson for Durham University said its assessment was “rigorous and thorough”, adding: “Students have been given clear instructions to take the exams remotely and have been informed that breaches of university regulations result in serious consequences”.
A University of Cambridge spokesperson said “all decisions are based on delivering the most effective exams”, with some online analytical, critical and problem-solving skills exams and others testing the retention of knowledge or math in person. “Standards remain as high as they have always been,” the spokesperson said.