University students always seem to be an overlooked demographic. This year’s A-level grades fiasco, alongside the use of the discriminatory algorithm, has rightly been at the forefront of the news. However, for all those in education during this pandemic, it’s once again university students who have had the least representation. This year’s exam season has come with its own set of challenges, after some universities, including my own, refused to cancel their end of year exams as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. They may have avoided the devaluation of their degrees, but at what cost?
As the peak of the pandemic coincided with the peak of the exam season this year, many students, including myself, initially called for a cancellation of exams. To the untrained eye, it may have looked like we were afraid of a little hard work. After dedicating much of the last two years to undertaking a Physics degree at Imperial College London, I am no stranger to a heavy workload. However, if you throw a global pandemic into the mix, with large numbers of students suffering bereavements or worrying about the health of friends and family, these are hardly the ideal set of circumstances for an exam season. Especially if you couple this with already overstretched mental health services suddenly becoming remote. After Oxford and Cambridge made the decision to cancel undergraduate exams, we assumed we would follow suit. Therefore, it came as a shock that our university had decided to go ahead with this year’s examinations remotely, even with the NUS advice that no compulsory exams should have taken place.
It is both irrational and insensitive to believe that these exams are in any way an indicator of how a student would perform under normal circumstances. Any idea of a level playing field had been completely dismantled. It is nothing short of hypocrisy for universities to pride themselves on admitting students from different backgrounds and social circles, yet implement an exams policy which disadvantages students who will primarily come from economically, or academically disadvantaged backgrounds. Despite the university not regarding it as a mitigation, many international students had no choice but to sit exams in the middle of the night. These exam results will hence likely be distorted immensely, and provide an idea of a student’s situation, rather than performance.
The student community were quick to point out the disregard for student welfare in the decision to go ahead with the remote examinations. The mental health of young people during the pandemic has been of some concern, with a study by University College London, Imperial College London and the University of Sussex reporting that six out of ten of young people aged 16-24 with previous mental health problems experienced higher levels of stress during the pandemic. Surprisingly, even among young people without previous mental health problems: almost half reported depressive symptoms and four in ten experienced higher levels of stress. Furthermore, a study from mental health charity YoungMinds suggested that a whopping 80 percent of young people will have their mental health affected as a result of the pandemic. This shows that irrespective of the circumstances students find themselves in, it is likely most of them will struggle with their mental health to some extent The pressure of the exam season is a major cause of stress for students under normal circumstances. However, this year, the exam season was in the middle of a life-changing global pandemic. Those were not ordinary circumstances.
After struggling with my mental health for a range of reasons in the last few months, I cannot fault my department who provided me with support throughout. Unsurprisingly though, I found the additional pressure to both sit the exams and perform well despite the circumstances, unhelpful. During the incredibly surreal times we have just lived through, it was relatively common to feel alone. In fact, I often did; many of my university friends were thousands of miles away. However, I knew my situation was not unique. It was strangely comforting knowing that there were people up and down the country, perhaps even the globe, who felt as I did during those months.
I have always acutely felt a lack of representation: as both a first-generation student, and as a woman in Physics. Then, to feel that as an undergraduate student I had been under-represented throughout this crisis, by both universities and by the media, has been demoralising. Our concerns deserved to be listened to; we should have been entitled to a fair process in determining exam grades, with full consideration of the circumstances. Yes, the apparent worse-case scenario of the degrees being devalued has been avoided, but at the cost of the overall well-being of the student body. This crisis has shed a light on many things: one of which is that mental health is an important aspect of our everyday lives. Hopefully, going forward, attitudes will change, and it will be agreed that student mental health deserves more representation.
As young people, we may not be as susceptible to the Coronavirus itself, but we are to its effect on our lives. We deserve representation. Our well-being deserves recognition. Yes, we deserve a fair and unbiased examinations process, but also a society and institutions which, in these unprecedented times, values compassion over calculations, and empathy over exams.