Students call on universities to ensure grades do not suffer in online exams

More than 15,000 third-level students sign petitions about challenges in working online

Thousands of third-level students have signed petitions calling on their colleges to ensure their grades do not suffer as a result of disruption to education linked to the coronavirus pandemic.

Universities which had been closed since mid-March are to hold alternative online exams or remote assessments to replace traditional end-of-year exams in study halls this year.

However, many students who have limited quiet space in their homes, unreliable wifi or substandard laptops say they face being considerably disadvantaged.

Conall Williamson, a UCC student, started a “no detriment” petition at his college in recent days calling on the university to ensure students do not receive grades that are lower than ones they were awarded during the academic year.


Almost 5,000 students at UCC have since signed the petition, along with 4,300 at UCD, 3,500 at Trinity College Dublin and 2,700 at DCU.

Mr Williamson said: “These are unprecedented times and students are faced with an absence of face-to-face learning, no university resources, variable working environments at home, time-zone differences in the case of international students, as well as mature students who are balancing jobs and childcare.”

He added: “These people cannot be expected to perform as they would have done under normal circumstances.”

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) said it supports the campaign and is working with education stakeholders to ensure no students are disadvantaged as a result of the coronavirus fallout.

“We strongly believe that higher education institutions, in partnership with their students, need to develop policies that are suitable for, and supportive of, their students and align with other arrangements within their institution,” USI said in a statement.

However, it said there was no “one size fits all” approach that could be applied equally across all institutions due to the many different forms of alternative assessments.

Flexible arrangements

The Irish Universities Association said its members were working to ensure students "suffer no academic disadvantage" by introducing flexible arrangements in relation to exam formats, marking and resits if required.

The Technological Higher Education Association, which represents institutes of technologies, has also given an assurance that “no student will be disadvantaged” as a result of its contingency plans for remote assessments.

Minister of State for higher education Mary Mitchell O’Connor said she welcomed moves by both the higher education and further education and training sector to protect students' best interests.

“Department of Education officials and I have been working daily with various stakeholders to ensure students in tertiary and further education and apprentices have certainty about their end year assessments and the format of these assessments,” she said.

“This is evidently a very stressful and challenging time for students and their families and I would like to express my deep appreciation to the students’ unions of Ireland, the academic community, their representative bodies and public officials for their commitment and the huge amount of work over recent weeks to ensure that we continue to support and enable our young people in achieving their potential, ambition in out tertiary, further education system.’’

Wiliamson said that while these moves were a step in the right direction, many students still face significant disadvantages.

Those with poor internet access or students who have job offers contingent on their results – and who will not be in a position to defer their exams – are among those who risk losing out, he said.

Some students who have contacted The Irish Times have also complained about the quality of online support they are receiving.

“There are some lecturers who should be highly commended for their actions in this situation and are doing lectures over Zoom, providing support over email and so on,” said one DCU student, who declined to be named.

“However, there are many, many lecturers who are not. They are piling on additional work, ridiculous updated requirements and have yet to take into consideration that we do not have the capabilities to keep up with the same work level. The same lecturers are not providing the equivalent of in-class support in order to answer questions . . . A lot are making it harder rather than easier.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent