The History Faculty has announced that Finals examinations for the 2021/22 academic year will return to in-person, handwritten formats in Exam Schools. This decision has been taken in contrast to the English and Law Faculties, both of whom have announced examinations will be online in 2022.
In an email sent to Finalists on September 24th, the History FHS Examination Committee announced that “Further Subject, Special Subject paper II (the gobbets paper), European and World History, and Disciplines of History will all be examined by in-person invigilated examination.” They also stipulated students will be assessed on “seven papers” – this removes the ‘safety net’ in place last year, in which the lowest mark was discounted, and students were assessed on 6 papers.
This is in opposition to the English and Law Faculties, who announced earlier this month that all but one paper will be held online. The English Faculty reasoned that “a fair mode of assessment needs to be in tune with the educational experience that [students] have had, including the opportunities that you have had to practice being assessed.” The History Faculty has not yet commented on why it has chosen otherwise.
The expressed reasoning behind enforcing in-person examinations is not equitable. “College organised collections” are promoted as the main tool that will be used to prepare Finalists for upcoming examinations. This does not consider the disparity between colleges in terms of time and resources – or even, if colleges undertake collections. Moreover, these actions are consciously being taken against the wishes of most students. The Chair of FHS Examinations has stated that “more students favour open book exams on Inspera”, with the survey conducted in Trinity showing that 52% of students preferred all open-book examinations compared to 37% opposing them. In a more recent survey conducted by finalists themselves, 73.5% of students strongly preferred “open book, online” examinations. The reasons cited centred around a lack of practice in written examinations, most FHS modules being taught entirely online, limited library access and frustration at the Faculty’s lack of transparency in their decisions.
There are fears amongst the cohort that Finalists will unfairly bear the brunt of the University’s attempts to stem grade inflation, under the guise of returning to ‘normality’. In 2019, then Education Secretary Damien Hinds called grade inflation “unjustifiable [and] artificial”. The Office for Students powers were increased that year to “levy fines of up to £500,000, or two per cent of a university’s income.” Grade inflation is seen as “damaging students’ interests” – and online examination has previously been criticised as too lenient.
The History Faculty’s announcement has caused panic amongst many Finalists. One anonymous student stated that “the Faculty has made clear its contempt for the students. You cannot claim to be working in our interests whilst actively not listening to our requests”. A further History finalist claims it “feels as though the History Faculty is trying to race its way back to normality with a cohort of finalists whose learning experience was far from normal, with no regard for the clear opposition expressed by the very students whom the Faculty has a duty of care towards. I can’t help but question whose benefit this decision was made for, as it does not accommodate students’ academic performance – never mind our mental health and wellbeing in a pandemic that is far from over”.
The History Faculty did not respond to a request for comment from The Oxford Blue, but in an email sent on 24th September to History finalists the faculty stated that “we are conscious that the run-up to them [finals] has been very different from pre-pandemic times” and that “we have taken into account the exceptional circumstances created by the pandemic up to now and will continue to do so as the situation evolves.”
A spokesman for the University of Oxford provided the following statement to The Blue on behalf of all departments:
“Assessments in the 2021/22 academic year are likely to involve a variety of different assessment types from coursework submissions and online open book exams to in-person examinations. Departments are now in the process of finalising the arrangements for individual subjects, and these will be confirmed in the weeks ahead. They will, where necessary, include plans for alternative assessment if government restrictions are re-introduced.
Decisions will be made following careful consideration of the pedagogical requirements of each degree subject, how students’ learning experience is most effectively evaluated, and opportunities for educational innovation involving online assessment. In some cases this means returning to the pre-pandemic format of three-hour in-person invigilated exams, and in other cases this means adopting new online formats that have proved successful during the pandemic.
We remain committed to the utmost standards of assessment, regardless of the format of examination.”
Illustration by Elara Oakes