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Strike action cancels oral language exams for finalists

Oxford University Modern Languages oral exams have been cancelled for final year students due to strike action.

Students were informed of this cancellation on the afternoon of 5th April following confirmation from the University and College Union (UCU) that a marking and assessment boycott (MAB) would begin on Thursday 20 April.

The University assures students that “the Faculty’s decision has not been taken lightly and that the cancellation of the FHS Oral will not affect the overall outcome of your degree”.

In two emails to students in early April, the University explained that the mark for the oral exam is “unlikely to make a difference to degree classification”. The oral exam normally only counts for half of a paper when a candidate’s marks are calculated by the ‘normal route’.

The oral exam is also not accounted for when higher class degrees are awarded by the ‘alternative route’, where the final classification is based on the number of papers with a mark in a given class.
One final year student told Cherwell that she feels that “in general speaking should be worth more of the degree and valued more than half a paper”.

The University has acknowledged that they “[c]onsider it important that your [final year] oral work during the course be acknowledged on your final degree transcript”. Thus, whilst no Distinctions will be granted, final year candidates will be given a Pass or Fail for the oral component.

The certificate of a Pass will be given upon confirmation that the candidate has attended and actively participated in eight oral classes (for each language if studying multiple) this academic year. This is a criterion the University expects the majority “will have no difficulty in meeting” by the middle of Trinity. Candidates can make up missed sessions at the start of Trinity.

Hearing the news of the cancellation one final year student said she reacted with “initial disappointment because their year group had been building up to it after three years worth of classes and extra sessions. In prioritising speaking, other aspects were slightly neglected during this time, such as literature”.

The student pointed out that this exam is also the opportunity for final year languages students to “properly show progress after the year abroad”, suggesting that speaking “is the most rewarding part of the degree where improvement is most noticeable”, and is “most directly relevant to the year abroad”.

However, the student did acknowledge that not all the revision will be fruitless as “for most people speaking preparation is helpful for paper 1 (writing)”. In addition, the student felt that “there’s not much else the University could have done due to the lateness of the strike announcement… there was no real good alternative”.

Some students responded to the original email with alternative suggestions to ensure the oral could take place. However, the University confirmed in a follow-up email that none of these would be possible.

The modern language oral exams were scheduled to take place between Monday 17th and Friday 21st April (0th week). Some students suggested having the orals the week before (at the end of week -1) to avoid industrial action. The University pointed out the following obstacles which made this impossible. Firstly, the closure of University faculty offices for Easter from Thursday 6th April until Tuesday 11th April would leave only a couple of days upon return to organize the orals before the proposed date. The University described the organisation of the orals as “a hugely complex operation” which “would not be possible in two working days”.

Furthermore, the University told students that they “had to take this prompt action because [they] are not able to guarantee the attendance, at the exams, of all examiners… Cancellation was necessary to avoid any uncertainty and, most importantly, to ensure that candidates are all treated equally. […] With the boycott commencing on the Thursday, it will be impossible to guarantee equitable treatment for all the c. 300 candidates across the week.”

In the follow up email they expand on this reasoning. During the Easter break, many academic and administrative colleagues may take some annual leave, and therefore not be reading emails. Some of the candidates, examiners, native speaker assessors and Exams Schools staff may have left Oxford for the break, possibly going abroad. They may not be able to return in time to hold the exams early.

Furthermore, they decline the possibility of postponing the exams in their first message, sympathising with the students that it “would interfere with your revision and the start of the written papers (we are mindful that some Joint Schools papers start as early as the end of the first week of full term, Friday 28 April)”.

A student that Cherwell spoke to described the general year group reaction as “mixed”. It seemed that generally among others, “bilingual people were disappointed”. However, “some students were relieved, for example Russian students, as they didn’t have a year abroad and didn’t feel prepared”. Furthermore, “people doing ab initio languages who had problems with visas because of Brexit, so could only spend limited time in the country, were also on the whole relieved about it”.

The University advises those who will not be able to attend the eight classes to speak with their tutors. They mention that a ‘Mitigating Circumstances notice’ may be suggested for some students further to this conversation.

For Russian and Czech students the cancellation of the oral component also means the Listening Comprehension is also cancelled, as it is part of the oral exam.

This action has raised some concern amongst students over the possibility of further exams being cancelled. However a student told Cherwell that “the faculty haven’t given us any details about whether it will affect further exams”. Given that exams begin on 22nd May, the student expressed hope that the oral will be the only assessment affected.

An Oxford University spokesperson said that the University is “recognising our colleagues’ right to take industrial action” whilst “working to minimise disruption for students – and in particular… taking all reasonable steps to ensure no student is disadvantaged in examinations and assessments.”

The University assured that “with specific regards to the cancellation of Modern Language oral exams, Exam Board Chairs will ensure that no students are disadvantaged in any way as a consequence of this action”.

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