Extremely disappointed does not begin to cover my feelings on the support, and approach, of the Department of Education and the individual higher education institutes to college students during the COVID-19 pandemic. While Leaving Certificate students have complained (and rightly so), they have received infinitely more support than any university students have.
Lack of support from the colleges
I am a final year chemistry student. This year counts towards 70% of my final grade. This grade has a direct impact on my upcoming employment. The college of science was less than accommodating, in my opinion. They seemed more interested in preventing their external examiners from having to work into July, than to create solutions for students with upcoming exams. There was no introduction of a no-detriment policy. There was no support for people who had poor Wi-Fi to download or submit exams. A girl in my class was told to “take a walk” to get a better data signal, in order to download/submit her exam. I surveyed my class and other students I know to get a sense of how they were feeling. 76% of students I surveyed were more nervous about their upcoming exams than before. No provisions were made for us to access content online.
I attempted to sit my exams, which were online, but having completed the first one I decided to defer the others. That exam was the single most stressful thing I have ever attempted in my life. I felt incredibly rushed, as did my class and the quality of content was not the same. The school of chemistry said this would all be taken into consideration when everyone’s scripts were compared, however that does nothing for students who are worried before those exams. Students needed clarification before their exams began as it would help relax them and reduce their anxiety around the exams. It must be remembered that my class had completed three years and seven sets of university exams. We were used to a certain environment and structure, all of which we had lost due to COVID-19.
Many students are at a disadvantage
I am incredibly lucky and privileged to be able to afford my own individual laptop and to have a personal, quiet space to work, study and relax. However, I am acutely aware that there are thousands who are not so lucky. One girl in my class had to share her laptop between four family members. Another had to share a laptop with her sister, who was a medical student to complete exams on the same day. Access to technology is not a recent issue, and these are definitely not the only people who had issues. However, no remedies, extensions or support was offered to students outside of the usual medical issues.
I pay my own rent for my accommodation. I had to leave that accommodation immediately in the middle of March. I only had one suitcase to bring stuff home, so I was limited to that suitcase and a backpack. The university had no concern for us – we had an assignment to do on the very day the university was closing. As a result of this rush, data for my thesis was misplaced, I had to leave some books and notes behind, and I could only bring a couple pairs of clothes home. In the scheme of things, these aren’t that important compared to my health, but when the university doesn’t make any sincere efforts to aid you with your thesis or provide you with extra time to study, that does nothing to help any anxiety, stress or basic concern about upcoming exams.
There is also this ridiculous expectation with the workload prescribed to students. Students are being given multiple multi-thousand-word essays and exams which must be completed in a 48 window. I think this is much more stressful than any Leaving Certificate exam ever came close to being.
My thoughts on the Leaving Cert
I understand the stress and pressure the Leaving Certificate causes. I have done it myself and it’s also the area in which I want to work. The Leaving Certificate has two main purposes in my opinion. One, it gives students a purpose and showcases their completion of state schooling and two, it serves as a way to divide students up for further education. However, it is not static. It is a dynamic course and exam, contrary to popular belief. Exams and curricula can be changed. Marking schemes are always altered after the exams are corrected, due to new input or a large group misunderstanding a question, for example. Change can easily be made for next year’s Leaving Certificate students. Another solution could mean the introduction of more option questions, reducing the need for the entire curriculum to be covered in subjects. Unfortunately, no solution will be perfect and disadvantaged students will remain even more disadvantaged. However, I do think secondary school students should come second to university students whose grades count toward their degree, which directly affects their employability. My degree is what my Leaving Certificate actually went towards, and it should not be wasted now after I have injected almost €50,000 into rent and tuition.
Every one of us that has been affected will remember the government and minister who failed to provide for us in our unprecedented time of need.