An unfinished first year

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It’s been a strange year for freshers. Our first year has been interrupted by two waves of strike action and now a pandemic. This was not what I expected from my first year when I first came to university last October, and whilst the problems that freshers are facing are minor in comparison to that of finalists, it has been a messy first year for us.

The University has asked students not to return to Durham following Easter break as teaching will continue to take place online and all grade 1, 2 and 3 listed buildings will be closed, including the Bill Bryson library. It is estimated that the virus will peak in Durham at the end of June when Easter term is due to end, so it will not be safe for students to return to Durham.

The problems that freshers are facing are minor in comparison to that of finalists.

Nonetheless, coronavirus has come at the best time it could have for freshers. We’ve done our A levels, and our assessments don’t go towards our final grade until next year. We will lose out on a term of college brunches, and we will have to wait a whole year to finally experience a college day or a summer ball. It is not an ideal situation, but this is a relatively small price to pay for our health.

The University has also now announced that livers in will not have to pay next term’s accommodation fees, so we are lucky considering that livers out will need to carry on paying rent next term despite not being able to come back to Durham.

But freshers aren’t immune to the disruption Covid-19 has caused to exams. The National Union of Students has called for all non-essential exams to be cancelled, and many universities, including Oxford and Warwick, have listened to this advice and cancelled exams for first and second years. Durham has not followed suit, and exams will still go ahead in an online format.

Not every student will have access to a suitable environment in which to do an exam.

Having some form of assessment at the end of the year is important, even for freshers, but the University needs to account for the fact that not every student will have access to a suitable environment in which to do an exam, so will be put at an automatic disadvantage. Guaranteeing a pass mark for every student may work to address this, or moving to summatives for some subjects; however if protections are not put in place to level the playing field, non-essential exams should be cancelled to avoid putting unnecessary and disproportionate amounts of stress on students during these unprecedented times.

No matter how convenient the timing of the pandemic for freshers, it is still upsetting that we will not be returning to Durham at the end of April. After having spent two terms adapting to the Durham bubble and building new friendships, it is difficult to come to terms with the fact that we will be stuck indoors at home for the next six months, many miles away from our friends. I just hope that next year will be a little longer and a little less turbulent.

Photograph: Mark Dowson via Flickr

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