One concerned third-year medical student who will attend an in-person exam on campus on Friday morning thinks it is irresponsible. “Many students have side jobs that require them to spend a fair bit of time at the hospital. Some of them work in the Intensive Care Unit. And now Erasmus MC is facilitating an in-person exam that might be attended by four hundred people,” says the student, who wishes to remain anonymous.

In recent weeks, several medical students have expressed their concerns about this fact to EM, the dean and Erasmus MC’s student council, but nevertheless, the exam will take place as scheduled. “Erasmus MC says that so far, things have gone well. I think it’s inappropriate that so many people will get together, considering the strain healthcare workers are under,” says the student.

This student’s exam is not the only in-person exam scheduled to take place in the coming period; when the current lockdown was announced, the university stated that all exams would take place as planned, including the ones administered on campus. Nineteen exams will have to be sat in person, on campus, in the weeks leading up to 19 January. “Future exams that have not yet been scheduled will be organised in the best possible fashion allowed by the coronavirus restrictions in force at that time,” an EUR spokeswoman stated. However, it should be noted that the university will offer the exams online, as well, so that students who are ill or have symptoms can sit them, too.

‘85 per cent want in-person exams’

Churches and other religious institutions came in for a great deal of criticism when they insisted on having socially distanced services, despite the pandemic. So why is it that universities are hardly given any flak for organising their exams as scheduled?

Maarten Frens, Erasmus MC’s dean of teaching, understands why the students are concerned, but also stated that the decision to have the exam take place as planned was not made by Erasmus MC. “This is very much the approach taken by Erasmus University as a whole. Exams are so vital that they are allowed to take place in person, according to the Ministry of Education. The university is implementing that policy and saying: everything will go on as planned.”

Moreover, it has been found that online proctored exams are not perfect, either. Erasmus Magazine has written on this subject before, and the results of a survey conducted by EM confirmed it. Half of the almost 500 students who took the survey indicated that they had experienced problems with online proctored exams. Many respondents said this type of exam was more stressful.

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High-risk groups

Frens believes that the majority of students prefer in-person exams, even in these extraordinary times. “It’s a tricky situation. Online proctored exams can also be problematic and stressful. We have found that many students prefer in-person exams. When they are given a choice between an online exam and an in-person exam, some 85 to 90 per cent of them will come to the exam venue to sit the exam.”

Frens wishes to point out that great care is taken to ensure that the in-person exams are COVID-proof. “We strictly comply with all the regulations imposed by the RIVM. And if students are unable or unwilling to come to campus, they are free to opt for the proctored exam and sit the exam online, if they have a good reason for doing so. We do offer that possibility. Students can apply for an online exam at short notice – for instance, if they develop symptoms just before the exam.”

Students who fall into a high-risk group are also welcome to avail themselves of this option, he says. “These are students who are at increased risk themselves, as well as students who think they might jeopardise other people if they were to sit the exam in person – for instance, if they associate with vulnerable people in their personal lives or work environment.”

Preventing students from falling behind

How is this done at other universities? The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) says it differs from one university to the next. A VSNU spokesperson said, “Some universities don’t have in-person exams at all, and other universities do everything in person, because they don’t want to offer online proctored exams. And there are also universities that offer hybrid methods.”

Previously, the VSNU argued in favour of pilot studies involving rapid coronavirus tests, thus allowing universities to offer safe in-person exams and more classroom teaching. “The Lower House liked that proposal. The first pilot studies offering this method will kick off in Groningen soon.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education explained that when the lockdown regulations were drafted, the Cabinet chose to keep all classes online where possible, to minimise student journeys on public transport and interpersonal contacts. However, the Cabinet exempted the supervision of vulnerable pupils, exams and practicals from this rule, as it seeks to do everything in its power to prevent students from falling behind in their studies. However, the exemptions are subject to a requirement: the restrictions imposed by the RIVM must be observed.

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But can’t all exams be sat remotely, using online proctoring? “The Ministry did not want to get down to the nitty-gritty for each individual discipline,” said the Ministry’s spokesperson. “It’s better for the education institutions themselves to make those decisions.”

It should be noted that universities are not required to administer in-person exams. A guideline issued by the Ministry of Education at the start of the second lockdown states that universities may ‘arrive at the conclusion that receiving large groups of students at exam venues is undesirable for safety reasons’. “In such cases, the use of online proctored exams is a realistic alternative for students wishing to sit an exam.” In other words, universities may administer all of their exams online if they so choose.

Erasmus University has chosen to allow in-person exams. An EUR spokeswoman stated that the university has ample experience of administering in-person exams in accordance with the coronavirus guidelines, and pointed out the aforementioned view held by the Dutch government that exams are considered essential events and that students must be prevented from falling behind in their studies.