Student “frustration” over exam organisation

The University of St Andrews has faced criticism from students following the organisation of last semester’s examination period.

Graphic: Tom Williams

The University of St Andrews has faced criticism from students following the organisation of last semester’s examination period.

A main critique from some international students came as a result of the late term dates, as exams were held as late as Saturday 23 December with term officially ending on Christmas Eve.

Other student complaints during the exam season centered around lack of study spaces at the library and the Residential Business Services’ management of the library cafe and vending facilities.

The late term ending resulted in travel complications for a number of students. One US student who did not wish to be named was forced to remain in the UK away from their family for Christmas Day.

Speaking about their ordeal to The Saint they said, “It was disheartening to prepare and work so rigorously for weeks only to be faced with the added stress of making it home in time for the holidays. The winter holiday is usually a time for relaxation, warm homes and a much needed break from our recent exams. Unfortunately, exam season this year felt like the students were more prepared than the University was.”

“I was originally going to schedule my flight back to Florida on 22 December, but due to the high prices, I had to schedule two flights on 23 December, one going from Edinburgh to New York, and then one going from New York to Orlando.”

“Unfortunately, on the 22nd I was notified that there were going to be delays and possible cancellations on the east coast due to a large snow storm. I then had to decide if I wanted to reschedule my flight to a later date or risk being stuck in an airport for Christmas.”

They continued, “I was disappointed that the exams ran so late this year because as an international student, travelling home usually takes up to 24 hours of travel from door to door.”

“While we know that studying internationally comes with its down sides and risks, I was surprised to see that the University did not take into consideration that almost a third of the student body would also be traveling internationally so close to Christmas Day.”

“My mother was the most saddened by this as she hadn’t seen me for almost six months and had been planning our Christmas dinner and holiday traditions for weeks. While I was fortunate enough to join another family’s Christmas celebrations, it just didn’t feel the same. “

“What was supposed to be the warmest and most celebratory week of the year quickly turned into a week of chaotic travel, long airport lines, and customer service calls; let alone the extended jet lag that I was left with once I finally reached my home for our postponed Christmas dinner.”

In her “Welcome Back” address, Principal Sally Mapstone seemed to acknowledge the concerns of international students. In the email she said, “I am aware that Semester 1 completed a week later than in 2016-17, meaning that some examinations finished only just before Christmas, with impact both on students and staff.”

“The Principal’s Office has been doing an extended piece of work on various aspects of semester timings, and feedback from the last semester is very much being taken into consideration as we plan ahead.”

A spokesperson for the University of St Andrews asserted that the se mester dates would not run so late for the following academic year, “The exam diet will finish earlier before Christmas in the 2018/9 academic year because of the way the calendar falls: the last Friday before Christmas is 21 December, rather than 22; and the date of that Friday will keep moving back further for the next few years.”

They continued to explain why the semester dates had fallen so late for this academic year, “The date of the last day of the examination diet always depends on various factors, which can change from one year to the next. One factor is how well we are able to accommodate exams in the spaces we have available. Another is that we also ensure that exams are timetabled so as to avoid all timetable clashes and as far as possible to avoid students’ having two exams on the same day or in consecutive exam slots (eg one afternoon and the next morning).”

“Given the large number of choices available in our curriculum, this is a complex task and tends to stretch the exam diet over the full period set aside for it. It should also be remembered that we protect a full week for revision, and are reluctant to cut into this in order to start exams earlier. We are unable to start Semester 1 any earlier for various reasons, some of which are connected to the timing of the release of A level results for prospective students.”

John Angus Macaulay, a second year English and History student, also ran into problems getting home to Canada from St Andrews.

Speaking to The Saint he said,  “I booked my flights in August for the return date being the last day exams were supposed to run, just a few days before Christmas. The main problem I had was having to get a connection through Frankfurt, that due to technical difficulties departed without me and forced me to stay an evening in Frankfurt.”

It felt like students were more prepared than the university

“I was lucky enough to get a connection the next day … but I almost had to be put on a flight that would have arrived the evening of Christmas. It didn’t cost me anything to switch flights or to get a hotel, under law I was also able to get a rebate … The situation in general didn’t give me any emotional stress, it was simply a long ordeal that I was exhausted after.”

Another student, who did not want to be named, faced the worry of not being able to return home for Christmas Day.

The student’s academic department informed them not to book travel home until the exam diet had been released in October.

On the 16 October the exam diet was released and students received an email informing them that they were free to book travel home from the evening of 21 December onwards.

The student, who spoke to The Saint, therefore booked their travel for the morning of 22 December.

However, as late as 7 December students received an email stating that they would need to be available for 22 December should their exams need to be rescheduled.

Of the matter they said, “I was worried I would not get home in time for Christmas which after 16 weeks of hard work was not pleasant. It was very frustrating to follow instructions sent by the University very closely but still end up in a situation where getting home could potentially be a problem.”

“I did not let it interfere with studies, but it was not a pleasant experience … the last thing you want is to think about whether you will manage to get back home in time.”

During the exam season there was also considerable student concern regarding the number of study spaces available at the University Library.

In an Instagram post by the University of St Andrews during exam season which read, “What are your top tips for revising and relieving exam stress?”, the top comment simply read “Buy a bigger library.”

Responding to a question over the lack of library spaces available, a spokesperson for the University said, “Until the refurbishment creates 375 additional spaces in late 2020, we are working to make the most of the space currently available in the Library-managed facilities and other University buildings. We have already identified spaces where we can move books and furniture in the Main Library to add a further 50 study seats this summer.

“Our trial to extend the evening opening hours in St Mary’s College Library was positively received and we are looking to secure the budget so that these additional opening hours can be offered from September 2018. We also increased access to Martyr’s Kirk for PGT students last semester so that they could use it all the time. This was done on a trial basis until Christmas but we have now decided to make this arrangement permanent.”

“We are also trying to ensure that more students are aware of the additional study spaces available to them in School buildings, specifically over exam periods, and 24-hour Computing Classrooms when the Library closes at 2 am.”

“There are plans for the Library to take over management of study space in the Gateway Building in the North Haugh later this semester (we gathered student feedback about this space last semester), a space which is already open to all students.”

However, some of these changes will come too late for students currently studying and coping with the increasing student numbers at the University.

There is roughly one library space to every 10 students studying at St Andrews.

Throughout the exam season the issue arose with students “reserving” library seats by placing their bags or personal belongings on a desk while they were away from their seat.

This caused upset among students online as they claimed they could not find a seat despite the library not being full.

One student wrote online during the exam season, “At the moment there are only 670 people in the library and yet there are (as far as I can tell from trawling all three floors) zero (0) free desk spaces in the entire building. In a library with a capacity of 1027 desk users, how is this possible?”

“It’s possible because about 300 people are putting their stuff on desks and then leaving the library building. If people didn’t do this, there would not be a capacity problem. Only 670 people want to use the library right now, and yet some of those people can’t because people who aren’t [sic] currently using the library are taking up space.”

Whilst another student wrote, “Everyone who has reserved a seat at the library has arrived at the library at 9 am to get that seat and plan to use it throughout the whole day. We still need to go out and eat lunch, but we plan to use [sic] the library seat.”

The library cafe and vending machine management was also criticised by students.

Chaotic travel, long airport lines and customer service calls

One student told The Saint, “It’s an utter shambles from a business perspective, notwithstanding their obligation to facilitate students with a quick and easy option for food and drink while studying.

“The library cafe frequently run out of sandwiches, paninis and sorts. Whilst the vending machines, when not working for the majority of the time, as soon as they did – hastilly run out of stock. As I mentioned from the business perspective, the demand was there, but the supply was not. Late one evening, I was very thirsty – hence demand, although if your vending machines can only supply me with a solitary can of Irn Bru, I’m unlikely to make that purchase. Both RBS’s loss and mine.”

They continued, “You’d think that to cope with the increase on demand (which would be very easy to anticipate given that it’s exam season), they would have at least opened for extra hours or stayed on top of stock.”

A spokesperson for RBS said, “We have been aware of how frequently the vending units go out of order at the Library.  Residential and Business Service staff have been keeping a list of dates when the machines do not work and this has been raised with the suppliers to either seek  solution or replace the machines.”

“We have not been made aware of the machines or the cafe running out of inventory. Planning for future exam periods, the cafe will hold additional stock to assist this extremely busy venue.”

For a week the library and RBS provided hot drinks, doughnuts and energy drinks between 10pm and midnight free of charge to students who were studying for their exams.


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