Coronavirus: Going to university this year? Here's what you need to know

A lack of school-leavers tests this year means the path to university - and your initial experience - could be quite different

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Exam boards across the globe have been forced to call off summer finals due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The move has thrown into question the plans of pupils everywhere, as children worry they may not have the grades needed to enter university.

In the myriad of different international exam boards, the International Baccalaureate cancelled its May exams and Cambridge International, Pearson and Oxford International AQA will scrap international tests, including IGCSEs and A-levels.

Pupils in expat hubs are widely affected. More than 175,000 pupils in 3,000 schools around the world were due to sit IB tests in May, for example.

Here we explain what that could mean.

Are any exams going ahead this term?

Most boards that grade international pupils cancelled or postponed school-leavers' exams this year.

The International Baccalaureate called off its May examinations last week, while Cambridge International scrapped tests including IGCSE, O-level, AS-level and A-level. Pupils will receive a grade and a certificate from Cambridge depending on their overall work.

IB pupils would also be awarded a diploma or a course certificate reflecting their standard of work.

Oxford International AQA Examinations and Pearson's Edexcel, awarding bodies of A-levels and IGCSEs, also cancelled exams in May and June.

In the UK, GCSEs and A-level exams were due to start in May but were cancelled this month as schools closed to contain the pandemic.

Children at Indian curriculum schools were left in a limbo when the Central Board of Secondary Education in India, which operates the CBSE curriculum, postponed their exams, due to be held from March 19 to 31.

They are scheduled to announce new dates for the examinations in April. The Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations also postponed ICSE and ISC examinations – the Indian equivalent of GCSE and A-levels.


If exams are cancelled, how will pupils be graded?

Pupils will be assessed on a mix of coursework, projects, internal tests, and previous performance.

Schools are waiting for details from exam boards such as IB and Cambridge International on the criteria to grade pupils.

Timothy Roberts, principal at Raffles World Academy in Dubai, said he expected that predicted grades and school and teacher recommendations to play a key role.

Gavin Walford-Wright, chief marketing officer at Dubai school operator Taaleem, said even with school closures and the switch to e-learning, IGCSE and A-Level pupils would continue to ensure "their assessments truly reflect their performances in their chosen subjects".

“Our teachers will submit assessment data of pupils' achievements and these will be used and moderated by the Cambridge International Examination Board to award final examination grades," he said.

FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2018, file photo, a gate opens to the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass. The U.S. Education Department said Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, it is investigating foreign gifts made to Harvard and Yale as part of a broader review of international money flowing to American universities. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

Will pupils be able to go to university in 2020?

Yes. Heads of schools believe there is no reason pupils would not be able to attend university this year.

Many headteachers expect that schools, universities and exam boards will soon be discussing the best way to assess pupils’ strengths.

Mr Richardson, from Raffles International, said: “This is a global situation so thousands, if not tens of thousands of pupils across the region are in the same situation.

It was a chance to prove I could achieve a certain grade. At the same time, it relieves a lot of stress

“I have no doubt that schools, universities, examining board will be working together to work out a way that children who have worked hard can get the recognition they deserve.

“We know that the ongoing assessments by teachers will be used by Cambridge International but exact details have not been explained yet.”

Ella Burkett, a 17-year-old Turkish-American pupil who lives in Abu Dhabi, was all set for IB exams in May, but does not believe it will stop her going to university in the United States.

“I was disappointed the exams were cancelled because it was a chance to prove I could achieve a certain grade. At the same time, it relieves a lot of stress for pupils,” said Ella.

She said if schools reopen soon, she may have to sit some internal exams.

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Will the university life be different?

At first, probably. It remains unclear where we will be in the fight against the virus in September - but it seems likely precautions will be taken to avoid large gatherings.

Pupils travelling abroad in particular may find the unusual induction for social clubs and freshers' week more muted.

Luca Frost, from Nord Anglia International School Dubai, said he was looking forward to starting his degree in international relations at King’s College London.

I am expecting problems in the first few semester at university

"They say viruses die out over summer but come back stronger in winter, so I am expecting problems in the first few semester at university," said Luca, who is British.

He was relieved to see exams cancelled and expects his coursework is strong enough to enter as planned.

"It would be a huge risk to have such a big group of students, around 200,000 for the IB, all come together in close proximity over the space of a month," he said.

"While we don’t know yet how diplomas will be awarded, I feel, perhaps selfishly, that we’ve been quite lucky as we will be mostly graded on our coursework which alleviates our workload."

Lucy Drake receives her A-Level results at Jumeirah College school.
(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)


What happens if you have a conditional offer from a university?

A pupil with a conditional offer typically needs to get a certain grade in their finals to secure a place.

So the decision to cancel exams has left pupils in limbo, until exam boards explain what grading will look like.

Teachers expect universities will be supportive - especially as they want to attract high-fee-paying international students from the Middle East, United States and Asia in particular.

Stephen Sharples, director of education at Aldar Education, said: “We have had assurances from many universities directly and indirectly that no pupil will be disadvantaged during this health crisis.

We have had assurances from many universities directly and indirectly that no pupil will be disadvantaged during this health crisis

“The universities seem to be supportive and are honouring the unconditional offers. With the conditional offers, they are willing to accept whatever route the exam board takes."

All that means is past course work comes becomes much more significant.

“There should not be any impact on a pupil entering university, unless of course the school assesses that the pupil has not performed at the required standard for the university, which is just the same if they did not perform well on that exam,” he said.

(PERMISSION GRANTED FOR PICTURES OF STUDENTS ) Students sit their GCSE mock exams at Brighton College in Brighton, East Sussex. (Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)

Are pupils whose exams have been cancelled exempt from distance-learning classes?

No. Schools across the emirates have advised pupils not to put their foot off the pedal, as internal work could be their way into university.

Online distance learning lessons are going ahead at schools across the emirates, and pupils must participate.

Teachers said children need to focus on learning irrespective of whether they would be sitting for exams.

Jayne Needham, principal at Dubai International Academy Emirates Hills said the school’s team is committed to help pupils to complete their coursework.

“Our online learning platforms will help us to continue their engagement and collaboration to this end,” said Ms Needham.