By Brian Hipkin, CEO & Founder at ReFRAME HE Consultancy Ltd.

At a time of the year when students’ minds turn to preparing for exams and assessments at home, many are still wondering what form those exams will take and even if they will happen at all.

Final exams

Recent surveys have shown that for nearly 75% of those asked, worries about exams and essays were top of the list of things that kept them awake at night.

Whilst most Universities, with differing depth and range, moved their teaching online in a matter of a few weeks, questions about setting, taking and marking exams (whether  end of year or end of degree) have taken longer to emerge.

Many students have called for the complete abandonment of final year exams. Oxford University has even gone so far as to create a completely new degree classification to deal with this situation. This is an approach that would perhaps be unthinkable and unsustainable outside of Oxbridge where your degree classification for  employability is measured in weeks rather than years, before where your degree is from kicks into effect.

There is a great range of assessment solutions being looked at by Universities at the moment; timed release of questions with ‘time stamped’ answers, submission of handwritten answers via photos and open book exams. 

In ‘normal times’ many Universities believe they have dealt with the issues of diversity, illness and personal circumstances via systems of extenuation, deferral and ‘extra time’.

However, these are not normal times and issues of broadband and device ‘poverty’ present very great challenges.

 New academic year 

The debate about admissions conditional or unconditional continues to rumble on. Some are planning for an online start in September 2020, others have decided to wait and see. 

The vast majority of applicants both Home and International report that they are still planning on starting University this September. The Government is still offering those leaving school/college the possibility of a September exam if they are unhappy with their teachers’ judgement on their grades. Given that these exams would have to be held in person and then be marked and moderated the results may appear too late for a September 2020 start.

International students

The post Brexit uncertainties about a study year abroad will be compounded if Universities around the world are forced into differing starting dates and if the modules or courses which the home University have designated as forming part of their study abroad programme are suddenly not available. 

The availability of part time work abroad, often a lifeline for study abroad students, is likely to have completely disappeared, not to mention the impact of the restrictions on work imposed by new post Brexit visa requirements. If taking a year abroad for study or as a work placement is no longer possible there could be a bottleneck in the lecture rooms, student accommodation and libraries as an unexpected cohort has to join the third year Universities are planning for. The drying up of UK based year or semester long work placements will similarly cause a major headache for Universities.

Whilst many would be International students are not changing their plans to study abroad, they may be having second thoughts about potential destinations as they see how some countries are treating their existing International students. We know little at the moment about parental pressure on the destination choices of International Students. But images seen around the world from those worst hit by Covid-19 may have an influence for some years to come in how people think about those countries.

Expect an increase in interest in studying in New Zealand.

Government support for HE

In the last week we have seen a call for direct Government cash injections to support both student hardship and the likely cash flow crisis that will hit our Universities in this financial year. However, it is not inevitable that such fiscal largess will be offered to Higher Education

Notwithstanding the amazing efforts that staff and students of our Universities are making and will continue to make in dealing with the Coronavirus, Universities are still not the Government’s flavour of the month. Any emergency bail out is likely to come with the same sort of ‘strings attached’ conditions as happened with the support offered to the self-employed.

Cash now could mean student number controls and a reduction in tuition fee levels in the future. Particularly if the HE train fails to leave the station as normal in September.