Consider changes to assessments for University of Birmingham students

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To the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, and the Heads of all Schools and Colleges within the University,

                We hope that this petition finds you and your families safe and well in these difficult circumstances.

Firstly, we would like to acknowledge that, of course, that this was not a situation which could have been foreseen with any significant period of notice, and that to make alternative arrangements over the course of the year to compensate for strike action, and recently in light of social distancing and quarantine measures has been extremely difficult for staff at the University. In light of this, we wish to thank staff for all the effort that has gone into their teaching and making alternative educational arrangements over the past few weeks - we are extremely grateful for the efforts that they have made.

We, the Undersigned, students of the University of Birmingham, are creating this petition to ask the University not to force students to continue to take exams as they usually would during this period of upheaval and disruption. Instead, students have suggested a number of alternatives that we ask the University to consider, including:

Cancelling exams, as many other Universities around the UK already have;
Giving students the option to change to coursework-style assessments, with long deadlines to accommodate students dealing with personal or family illness, caring responsibilities, and so on.
The current environment in which students are attempting to work is one of extreme disruption and uncertainty. We have already had to deal with the impact of two rounds of staff strikes this year, and while many students have supported staff in their decision to strike, most students are still struggling to catch up on missed content and the general disruption that these have caused throughout the year.

Not only this, but many students are currently being asked to revise for exams having not received crucial feedback on coursework assessments which were submitted well before the University’s usual 15-day feedback return period, as a result first of the strike action this term and now the COVID-19 pandemic affecting staff marking. Many students are also having to attempt to complete revision work without even knowing what their assessments may look like or when they will be. We hope that you can appreciate that this makes our work extremely difficult.

Furthermore, the recent difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have made it extremely difficult for most students to continue with their studies:

Some students will themselves fall ill during this time, and cannot be expected to study or complete examinations during this time, or will have to care for loved ones who contract the virus or remain in quarantine as a result. 
Many students are themselves in at-risk groups due to long-term health conditions, disabilities, and so on, and so have had to self-isolate which has made learning even more challenging. 
Others have close family or friends who are in vulnerable positions, and so may have had to take on caring responsibilities or will be under a great deal of stress and concern for their families’ wellbeing. 
Others have children, and because of recent school closures now have to spend all their time caring for their children rather than studying. 
Others do not have a suitable study space in their homes in which to work, and are now unable to use library facilities to work or conduct research. 
There are a whole multitude of ways in which the pandemic has affected students – more than can be outlined in one letter – but all of this points towards the fact that none of us are currently able to work to the best of our ability and this will be reflected in any assessment that we are asked  to complete. Cancelling exams, or at least allowing students the option of completing coursework-style assessments, would be preferable in this situation. Not only does coursework allow students to complete work over a longer period of time, which mitigates the effect of time zone differences, lack of quiet study or work space at home, and so on, but also takes into account the fact that students are much less likely to have had time to familiarise themselves with or commit to memory the material for their exams due to the impact the strikes and the pandemic have had on our studies.

This period of uncertainty has been extremely difficult to deal with for many and is not conducive to a good working or revision environment – many students are, as of yet, still uncertain exactly what it is they are supposed to be working for, as the exact nature of the adapted assessments remains undetermined. Many students are finding it extremely stressful to attempt to prepare for exams in the current climate, and the current situation is having an extremely detrimental impact on the mental health of many students. We hope that you can appreciate that working in these conditions is extremely difficult and stressful, and that we are concerned that any exam-style assessment at this point in time would not reflect students’ true ability in their subject, nor the excellent quality of teaching which the University is able to provide under normal circumstances. We are more than willing to make allowances for the ways in which the strike action and the COVID-19 pandemic have affected the university, and the ability of staff to teach and provide feedback on our work – all that we ask is that the University make the same allowances for its students when their ability to work is impacted by the same circumstances.

In conclusion, we, the Undersigned, ask that the staff of the University take into account the extreme and extenuating circumstances which are affecting all its students’ ability to work and to prepare for assessments this year. We ask them to consider cancelling exams, as many UK universities already have done, or to consider allowing students the option of changing exams to coursework-style assessments to mitigate the effects of both strike action and the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ performance and the degree qualification they will ultimately receive. Finally, we ask for lenience and consideration to be afforded wherever work is marked or assessed, as the conditions in which it has been completed from students are far from ideal.

For further consideration, we also invite staff to view a similar letter drafted by students of the University of Cambridge, as we feel this letter contributes to expressing our concerns in an extremely eloquent and concise manner.

Once again, we would like to thank you and express our gratitude for the work the staff have already put into dealing with these circumstances, and we thank you for your time and your consideration.