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Category: #NoInPersonExams

FOI Reveals Minister Harris Discredited Student Voices during Exams

An FOI request put forward by László Molnárfi, Chairperson of Students4Change and Gisèle Scanlon, President of the Graduate Students’ Union, on behalf of the #NoInPersonExams national campaign to Minister Harris’ Office has now been granted. The reason for the FOI request was to ascertain a timeline in which Minister Harris engaged with the 5,000 student and staff signatures of the open letter so that he can make a balanced and fair decision relating to in-person examinations. The #NoInPersonExams open letter is spearheaded by two Trinity students, undergraduate László Molnárfi and postgraduate Giséle Scanlon, and has amassed over 5,000 signatures, which were delivered to Minister Harris in good faith on the 1st of December 2021.

Today we have received the results of this FOI. The correspondance which we received contains 6 records were granted to us after we asked for “Documents, communications regarding the decision of Minister Harris to not intervene in Universities holding in-person exams for Semester 1 of 2021-2022. Any communication between Minister Harris and Donnelly for this issue including the meeting minutes of the meetings that Minister Harris had with
management, staff and student representatives. E.g. the one on December 1st
2021 with the student unions” and “Documents, communications regarding Minister Harris’ and the Department of Further Education “s consideration of the #NoInPersonExams open letter, which was delivered to the Minister’s Office on 52 Stephens Green on the 1st of December 2021”.

As early as November 19th 2021 at a meeting of the Covid-19 TES Steering Group the issue of Semester 1 examinations across Universities and Technological Universities was discussed. Minister Harris said in his opening remarks that “Decisions in relation to examinations should be taken in accordance with the framework in place i.e. on the basis of risk assessment and consultation”, according to meeting minutes.

At the same meeting, the Union of Students Ireland (USI) President Claire Austick raised the issue of having alternative options for students not able to attend in-person examinations, according to meeting minutes of the Covid-19 TES Steering Group.

Dr Joseph Ryan from THEA, the Technological Higher Education Association, brought concerns relating to increasing levels of anxiety surrounding examinations.

The IUA’s representative at the meeting stated the importance of alternative examination arrangements and also access to PCR tests. The IUA is short for the Irish Universities Association and they represent DCU, Maynooth Uni, NUI Galway, TCD, TU Dublin, UCC, UCD and the University of Limerick. The IUA is composed of the Presidents of each of these Colleges.

Just a month later, at the next meeting of the Steering Committee on the 10th of December 2021, in the middle of exams, Minister Harris in his opening remarks is seen to call the student voices, like NUIGSU, who called out instititutions not creating safe exam conditions to be lies. He called upon stakeholders to “debunk misinformation regarding the application of public health advice”. He also said that an agreement was reached that a “one size fits all approach is not appropriate” – this agreement must be referring to the government’s own decision, as meeting minute do not indicate any sort of direct discussion on the topic.

Dr Breda Smyth, is the director of public health for the Health Service Executive in the west, and also is one of the leaders of the Unicov project.

Claure Austick, USI President, after the opening remarks of Minister Harris, reiterated the importance of alternative options for assesment students in light of rising Covid-19 cases.

The IUA suddenly at this meeting agreed with Minister Harris, contradicting students’ and staff’s account on a number of issues, namely the amount of in-person exams, whether these exams are safe and whether there are proper alternative arrangements (e.g. deferral mechanisms) in place. They also claim that whenever an exam was postponed due to Storm Bara, it was moved to a different date “in agreement with local student unions”, but this was clearly not the case for NUI Galway’s Saturday exams.

Stella Griffin from FORSA, an Irish trade union, noted concern for invigilators (since they are older and more at-risk) in exam halls at the meeting.

It does not seem that at these meetings Minister Harris allowed much discussion, either at the November meeting, or at the December one, despite claiming to do so. His Office had already made up their minds before hearing any of the other stakeholders, and the government seems to not have listened to student and staff concerns. It seems that at the November meeting, promises and suggestions were made by a variety of stakeholders that were never implemented by the government. Proper deferral was not implemented across many universities – 86% said they felt pressured into not deferring according to a recent survey, and PCR testing at the time of the Christmas exams was very difficult to access. Eyewitness reports, pictures and videos detail crowded scenes in examination halls. It seems that those in-charge have no clue what is going on on-the-ground.

Following the 10th of December meeting, a document which describes how to answer questions from TDs in the Dail relating to in-person exams was disseminated to government members. It said that the key messaging must be that all stakeholders were consulted. Furthermore, it crafted a reply to possible “opposition attack lines”.

Another meeting was held just between Minister Harris and the USI and different SUs on the 1st of December 2021. The briefing document prepared for Minister Harris for this meeting shows that Minister Harris’ Office essentially let Universities take the blame. This was re-iterated to the representatives at the meeting, who raised the issue of #NoInPersonExams.

Briefing document.

As far as whether the Minister’s Office considered the #NoInPersonExams open letter with 5,000 signatures, they did not. They put it in the government system, but there is no indication that Minister Harris or others in the government took the time to engage with the signatories. This shows a huge disrespect for the 5,000 students and staff who raised the mental and physical dangers of in-person examinations and is an affront to the democratic process.

This was the only communication and document relating to the FOI about whether the government considered the #NoInPersonExams open letter. Branding the Graduate Students’ Union of Trinity a “protest group” just shows how out-of-touch Minister Harris’ Office is with student representation on-the-ground.

Find all the original FOI documents here. Note that for the briefing document mentioned just a moment ago, there were supposed to be “redacted” parts, but the government failed to redact it properly – you can simply copy-paste from the PDF, so we made an unredacted version which describes different issues relating to third-level education at the moment.

We would hope that the Minister has learnt lessons from this, namely that the next time we call to deliver a petition with several thousands signatures and hundreds of thousands of social media interactions, that the Minister will have the good grace to engage with not only the content of the petition, but should extend appropriate respect to the many thousand voters who took the time and consideration to be a part of the campaign.

#NoInPersonExams Survey Results

We are publishing the worrying results of our #NoInPersonExams survey, in which students from across the country participated. 86% said they felt pressured into not deferring. 57% said that they were financially affected, and 65% had to travel with public transport for their exams. 75% lived with someone at-risk, and 85%/98% said that there was no adequate social distancing in the exam hall / in the outside line. 71% of students have heard of others going into the exam hall despite being positive, and 57% of students have heard of others becoming positive following an exam. Find the general and per-University results in full at this link, including comments from students.

GSU-S4C Joint Statement on Schols

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                  7th January 2022

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Dear undergraduates and postgraduates

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We are writing to highlight an urgent issue that has come to the attention of the GSU Executive, Students4Change and the Chair of the GSU Board.

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It has come to our attention that the Schols Examinations will proceed on Monday January 10th, 2022 with formal communication being issued as late as late last night Thursday 6th to students this week in relation to these exams. This lack of communication and engagement with the Schols secretary, Schols applicants and indeed student representatives raises deep concerns. We have included here links to all known information contained on the Schols pages of Trinity College Dublin.

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In a GSU Executive meeting held yesterday, several issues were discussed around Schols and the following concerns were raised:

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1. The timing amidst high numbers of Omicron cases in the community does not take into account the risk of illness leading up to or during the exam dates which will disadvantage students. Therefore, we are asking TCD to space out tables and limit room capacity to a lower number and to please distribute FFP2 masks which offer high-grade protection to all those students sitting Schols and to those invigilating exams.
2.We understand that the exams are to run at 60% capacity (similar to the RDS) and will be invigilated by postgraduate invigilators but this raises the same issues which we campaigned vehemently on regarding the safety and working conditions of invigilation staff, such as requiring postgraduate invigilators to clean up Covid-19 storage bags. We would ask College to provide sufficient bin capacity so that students can dispose of their bags that may be contaminated.
3.The GSU and S4C would like to raise concerns about accessibility. The pandemic has further excluded students with underlying conditions or disabilities (there’s no mention of disabled students nor accommodations highlighted on the website pertaining to Schols). We believe that this could easily dissuade students from applying, especially this (as opposed to last) year.
4.Preparing for Schols is the most restrictive aspect of the Schols experience. Many students who are sustaining a job for example, do not have the time to dedicate to studying for the exams and are disadvantaged. This is especially true this year, when those students working will be exposed to the public and could easily become ill or worse bring illness to the exam space to other Schol hopefuls and to postgraduate invigilators.
5.Discriminating factors we have identified with Schols for undergraduates who will eventually become membersof the postgraduate in community (as the funding given extends to a Schol until they are postgraduate students.
6.There has been previous debate on whether Schols should exist – current funding runs over 1.5 million to maintain accommodation, food, and a small stipend, but we believe that academic merit and tradition are important pillars of our student community and should facilitate gender culture, race and disability (both hidden and mental and physical).
7.Last year’s Schols exams were online, which came with its own set of challenges. Accessibility has become one of the central facets in combating the pandemic. Covid-19 has forced each of us to tailor certain practices, in particular towards the online arena, so as to curb its transmission. This year, College has not put in place an adequate hybrid learning environment for students in Semester 1. Contradictory communications, such as backtracking on promised remote access to learning, were issued in the first months of the academic term and resulted in students stuck at home and abroad not being able to prepare for their exams. In addition, with a large share of learning having taken place online, some students might feel unprepared to take in-person handwritten exams. In a recent survey, 66% of students indicated from our College that they had most of their teaching online in the first Semester. As far back as October, students were petitioning to move the Schols examinations online via an open letter signed by students from across departments. When surveyed today, candidate Scholars did not agree on switching to an exclusively-online way of assessment at the last minute, nor did they agree with keeping it solely in-person. From a sample of 52, no majority is for either online or in-person. 19.2% are for in-person and 28.8% are for online, the rest for postponement. Therefore, due to the divided opinions of all those applying for Schols, we are not asking for any shifts structure or time-wise, but we are disappointed at College’s slow reaction to community feedback.
8.As for Proctoring, being monitored and taking a real-time online exam during a pandemic will feed into the extraordinary stress students have been under since this September 2021. The additional stress can result in mental distress or even physical discomfort from headaches to panic attacks. Besides, the stress and discomfort arising from being monitored will affect the students’ performances. Discriminating factors we have considered with Proctorio at the Graduate Students’ Union which we believe would bring undue anxiety and stress:

[a] Infrastructure (affording a computer or internet at home) is stressful.

[b] Living conditions (shared rooms where students can take their exams

without being disturbed and can concentrate. Students might live in

accommodations that are loud because of many reasons from nearby

constructions or motorway to crowded apartments).

[c] Students with caring duties might find it difficult to find someone to take care of their children while they are sitting an exam or making clear that they

are under no circumstance be disturbed which induces anxiety.

The use of online proctoring software such as Proctorio violates student privacy and creates unnecessary barriers to exam-taking. It should not be used in Trinity College Dublin.

9.Whilst we very much appreciate the effort being made by those organising the in-person exams which 898 Schols students are slated to take starting Monday January 10th, 2022 these plans present several issues. Students may not wish to sacrifice personal health and safety by sitting an in-person exam and are then asked to choose between maintaining privacy and maintaining safety during a pandemic. International students who made plans around the holiday and exam period with the exam information given in November are currently abroad or in other countries and may contract the virus whilst returning to sit Schols which leads us to our following ask.
10.To sum up, the issue is one of poor communication and lack of choice… the lack of transparency, coupled with the lack of stakeholder consultation relating to the Schols exams . We held a consultation with several Schols in College as well as potential Schols who will sit the exams next week and the most unsatisfactory issue is if a student becomes too ill to sit Schols between Monday January 10th and Friday January 14th. The students’ only option is to sit the exam in January 2023. This locks a potential scholar out of funding for a whole year of their lives. We are insisting that a second sitting of the exams must take place before Trinity Monday in late June 2022 to accommodate these potential Schols, therefore no-one is left behind.

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The GSU and S4C expresses concern in relation to the upcoming Schols examinations and presents a number of recommendations. The health and safety of undergraduate students and postgraduate invigilators must be of the utmost importance and we hope that College will listen to our concerns and asks to ensure the wellbeing of our Community.

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Gisèle Scanlon, President, Graduate Students’ Union +353864120444

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László Molnárfi, Chairperson, Students4Change +32 470583174

Schols Survey Results Favours Postponement or Postponement until Hybrid Exam

This is not a statement yet, just a few bits of data.

When surveyed, candidate Scholars did not agree on an exclusively-online or exclusively in-person system as of 06/01/2022 17:17. From a sample of 53, no majority is for either online or in-person. 18.9% are for in-person and 28.3% are for online, the rest 52.8% for postponement. However, many students, upon seeing that there was no hybrid option in the form, have indicated to Students4Change that they are in favour of a hybrid system, as that is the most fair, and stressed the importance of mechanisms which ensure academic integrity.

A few comments from students as follows.

“I think another option might be to offer online exams to those who have covid but who are still well enough to sit the exam, just so that they don’t have to wait until next year to get a chance at schols. It would prevent anyone from going into the exam hall knowing they have covid too”


“Offering a deferral for next year really isn’t a fair alternative”

“People studying for schols have been working under the assumption that it’s in person this whole time, so a complete change of plans might do more harm, but people also shouldn’t have to wait a year to retake for something they can’t control”

Students4Change and GSU Joint Press Release to Protect Students During Exams

Dear undergraduates, dear postgraduates, dear students, 

As we approach exams, Students4Change (S4C) and the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) would like to share their utmost concern relating to the sudden return to in-person exams in the RDS for some students, and the overall plan for assessment in Semester 1. 

Our position has been consistent since September. We have always advocated for a proper return to in-person classes, with strong hybrid learning supports in place for those who, due to Covid-19 or otherwise, are anxious about returning to College campus. In addition, we’ve taken onboard students’ worries about a sudden return to in-person exams in the RDS and advocated for holistic, open-book alternatives to traditional exams, which worked so well last year. Finally, central to our requests was that if the student experience is compromised, refunds should be given. 

Chairperson of Students4Change László Molnárfi says, “there is an opportunity to build back better as a community, but College is squandering it with its short-term thinking and preoccupation with revenues. Instead of investing in re-timetabling software, proper ventilation and hybrid learning systems, they are trying to save face by refusing to acknowledge the deep-rooted governance problem that originates from the Provosts’ Office. There is a lack of democracy, transparency and accountability.” 

This means that instead of progressing as an academic community, initiative is stifled by bureaucratic means, and decisions which are detrimental to students and staff are pushed through, with little to no consideration of their effects.

Students4Change and the GSU are calling on the IUA (Irish Universities Association) to reconsider the decision for Universities to hold in-person exams in light of current high COVID-19 numbers.“

We would like to express through this press release our concerns about College’s current lack of mitigation measures and contingency plans for in-person RDS and online exams in Semester 1 of 2021-2022. Last year, the counselling services at peak time – build-up to exams – averaged ‘100 on the waitlist and several weeks to see a 1-1 counsellor’. It is with this figure in mind that the exam season should be considered, as if it is done in an unthoughtful way, it will have catastrophic consequences for students’ wellbeing. 

In general, our requests have been the following, which Students4Change has communicated to the Provosts’ Office via an email on the 30th of September 2021, and which the GSU has raised at College committees:

  • We asked for College to consider the possibility of using the same exam format as last year, both for standard assessment in Semester 1 and for Schols, since  open-book exams are a holistic way of assessment and should be encouraged all-around.
  • We asked College to make sure that, in all cases, assessments are the least stressful possible. For example, put a permanent end to the use of the invasive Proctorio monitoring software, which can encourage unconscious bias, does not work for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and has serious data privacy issues.

However, with the upcoming in-person RDS exams and online exams, our requests need to be more specific, in the form of proposals. As such, we would like to ask for mitigation measures, and a contingency plan, which should include the following, and keep in mind the following:

  • According to the TCDSU’s Mid Semester Review of 2020-2021, 28.9% of surveyed AHSS and HS students said that their primary working environment is not a private bedroom or study space. As such, we would like to ask that real-time online exams be extended to give flexibility to people with home environments that are not suitable for writing exams within a very short timeframe.
  • As per statistics, 11% of homes in the North of Ireland (Ofcom Connect Nations Report 2019) and 20% of homes in the Republic of Ireland (Eir.ie National Broadband Plan website) do not have access to high quality broadband and so could be severely impacted by real-time online exams which have a strict time limit. This is another argument for extending these exams to be 24hr/48hr/72hr exams, like last year. 
  • Wherever possible, compensate for the language barrier. Currently, there is a serious language barrier issue relating to in-person exams. Imagine, for example, a second-year international student who has never written a handwritten exam and always wrote open-book exams on the computer, with the dictionary and spell checker. If English is not their first language, they will be very disadvantaged. As such, dictionaries provided by the College should be allowed (at least for those who need it as a special accommodation due to language difficulties), but also, in the ideal scenario, exams in the RDS should be written on the computer to ensure a level playing field, with accessibility accommodations.  
    • While our College has entry requirements for language, language tests like CAE and our College’s perception of what is considered adequate is terribly mismatched with what lecturers expect. A C1 (180+) on Cambridge Advanced English (CAE) is much easier to accomplish than to write a good exam in second-year.
    • Computers for exams could be brought by students, and funded by College and the laptop loan scheme or by utilizing the computer labs. 
      • Keyboard-mediated exams are more flexible, can be corrected better and produce overall better quality for students and correctors. 
    • Extra time (15-20 minutes) could be given to students on request from the tutor, and allowances could be made for graders to not take into consideration grammar and spelling as much. 
    • The ideal solution is, of course, to simply move exams to be open-book assessments, with giving students ample time to submit by having long deadlines, based on last year’ model. 
  • Students from the countryside are disadvantaged, as they will have to travel up from their homes in crowded public transport, and spend hours in cramped exam halls. There is a serious Covid-19 danger, and College should as a whole reconsider in-person RDS exams, or at least, fund buses from cities to take students up to their exams. Just like how the  government guidelines are being revised at the moment, College should also take a step back and consider the possibility of building back better with holistic assessment and hybrid learning technology for the long-term.
  • In an email sent to all undergraduate and postgraduate students, College talks about how important personal responsibility is during Covid-19 and how “it would be a pity to miss assessments and defer to the summer”. In reality, College has allowed 78,000 tourists to visit campus between May and October of 2021, and should reconsider in-person RDS exams. There is a serious danger that students could get Covid-19, and long-Covid before and during exams, and as such students should be able to choose to repeat in April.   
    • Allow students to resit modules even if they have passed them, or to retrospectively defer assessments if they feel their performance has been affected.
    • Try to offer possibilities for students to take their exams in smaller venues wherever possible to reduce the risk of catching Covid-19.
  • Places to pray for religious students should be established within exam centers. 
  • Students should not have exams during their study period, even during contingency dates, especially since there are already loads of assignments due that week.
  • The GSU President Giséle Scanlon is deeply concerned that the postgraduate community will have to sit in-person exams in a few weeks time. 

“I  have engaged with classes and there are many practical issues which surround in-person exams which we are deeply concerned about at the Graduate Students’ Union. As a quality and equality issue, handwritten scripts are much poorer in general and disadvantage certain members of our community (students can’t return to write a sentence without messing up a handwritten exam for example) and therefore we are calling for keyboard mediated exams with the assurance that there will be enough postgraduate research students as invigilators set up to take the anxiety out of exams this year.”

  • In consultation with research postgraduates who have to teach and mark exam scripts – the GSU President Giséle Scanlon feels that:

“Having typed text to mark is the number one thing that will help the postgraduate community as it will improve quality for both students and teaching staff. A student can have an essay/answer and may wish to return to make improvements after handwriting pages, but handwritten scripts are too rigid and make improvement by addition and correction impossible and messy. Typed text creates a higher quality piece of work overall which is nicer to produce for our postgraduate taught students and less problematic to mark for our postgraduate research students.” 

  • If at all possible we would like to ask for College premises to be made available for students who will be taking off-books exams as cramped living conditions will prevent students from concentrating. 
  • The GSU has learnt from its doctoral cohort that “the one thing which is very stressful for students and teaching staff is last minute changes. An academic was teaching last week and ten minutes into a lecture was told that it also needed to be done on Blackboard because half a class had COVID or was awaiting results and if our T.A.s are preparing lectures/tutorials for in-person teaching there are animations behind the teacher on the screen and it helps to point things out. On Blackboard the animations don’t work, you can’t stand in front of the screen and those students who are learning from home just see a pixelated funny blob moving around. The teacher has to stand in front of the camera, so this is in a very controlled teaching environment so in terms of exams, I  anticipate challenges with the rising number of cases. I’m worried that now we are lambs to the slaughter in an in-person exam scenario which will affect grades.”
  • Also according to the GSU, there’s a second layer of complexity which is going to feature as a big problem if Trinity College goes ahead with in-person exams at the RDS. What do we do with students who are feeling unwell? A student being facilitated online whilst the rest of the class is sitting the exam in person… that’s an obvious inequity. The student who has to travel to the physical exam is disadvantaged having to use public transport and then to sit in a hall full of students which would mean possible  exposure to the virus at a time when there are but a few weeks to Christmas and students will be travelling home.

The GSU President explained that “I tried to get an ambulance for a student last week onto the Trinity College campus and I was told there was a six hour wait by the ambulance services. Although there are nurses present in the RDS, what if a student needs an ambulance with the HSE being so stretched at the moment it’s a valid concern? I had to book a taxi to take the student to St. James’s Hospital. What if a student runs into difficulty in the RDS? I have worked at the RDS helping the postgraduate community during their exams, there are many variables and unknowns which we deal with as a Union and it’s a valid concern.” 

  • The GSU president is “calling on the IUA (Irish Universities Association) to discuss a deferral of in-person exams for postgraduates in light of the current national COVID numbers. We are concerned for students who are sick or might have COVID, or will be awaiting test results that through no fault of their own they will have to choose an alternative option other than in person. There’s an equality issue if some students sit exams in different circumstances and we need to negotiate a good option for all of our students. Whether that is to repeat or defer free of charge to February, we’re asking for a solution so that postgraduates don’t feel that they have lost something, like so many students last year.”    

These mitigation measures are necessary to ensure the wellbeing of students and staff alike. 

László Molnárfi, Chairperson, Students4Change +32 470583174  

Gisèle Scanlon, President, Graduate Students’ Union +353864120444

Abhisweta Bhattacharjee, Vice-president, Graduate Students’ Union +918583981336

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