Coronavirus: Durham University’s response to our present situation

At the time of writing this article, the country and the wider world are embroiled in a crisis which is quite clearly unprecedented in living memory. In this period of uncertainty and fear, it’s easy to be swept up in the wider implications of such a moment, the economic and political turmoil are indeed pressing and the status of University life may not be the most important of matters. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that education has played a huge part in the government’s response, due to the momentous effect Coronavirus has had on it. Last week, the Prime Minister announced that schools would be closed indefinitely and GCSE and A-Level exams would be cancelled. It was a sweeping move that leaves questions regarding the implications of University education all the more up in the air. 

Since the crisis accelerated almost two weeks ago, Durham University has been relatively consistent in keeping the student body updated. A dedicated Coronavirus email has sent almost daily updates, initially informing students that teaching would move to online for the final week of term and advising that they go home if they wish. Since then, updates have included the move to carry out exams completely online, close University buildings like the Bill Bryson Library, and move students who have to remain in College to a more concentrated set of self-catered accommodation. 

In terms of swift and clear action, the University should be commended for at least appearing to have a plan of action. Decisions on exams were quick and communicated as effectively as possible. Regardless of opinions on whether moving to online assessment is feasible and/or desirable, the executive cannot be faulted for their communication during this crisis. It can’t be forgotten that for them also it’s an unprecedented situation, so appearing to have it together is undeniably a positive development. Nationally, Durham was one of the first to effectively shut its doors, making the headlines on Thursday 12th March for taking the measures to move everything online. That in itself shows some form of leadership. In terms of communication going forward, a recent email asks for any students self-isolating or any students remaining in Durham City to contact the University to notify them of their circumstances. Central administration seems to be running undisturbed and for that, we should be nothing but thankful. 

It’s a different story however when the realities of the initiatives are taken into account. Online assessment is clearly the most logical way forward, and many expected that would be the path taken. But in reality, they will fail as a simulation for the proper exam period. What is there to stop students at home searching for answers online and crafting their essays open book? If that is to be expected, then are departments amending mark schemes to take this into account? Will that disadvantage students who may not have easier access to internet in their home lives and/or do not have friends or relatives who can provide support? For those in sciences, an online assessment is a one way trip to the majority of students cheating, and for humanities, there is going to be confusion over how much secondary material is needed to complete exam essays. 

There is also the question of money, something that the University has (unsurprisingly) not addressed at all. Student will not be returning to Durham for Epiphany Term. Will students living in colleges really be expected to pay a term’s worth of fees? Will livers out get any help with private rents? Most pressing of all, if none of us will be attending University for a full term, should the equivalent proportion of yearly tuition fees be scrapped? I wouldn’t get my hopes up, but even though the University has excelled at ensuring safety on its campus and clarifying the way forward, there are pressing questions that remain in need of answers. 

Image: Charbeck10 via Creative Commons

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