Concern over Covid-19 social distancing prompts rethink of higher education qualification
Sweden’s Council for Higher Education (UHR) has cancelled the autumn raft of bi-annual university entrance exams, the hogskoleprovet, known in English as the Swedish Scholastic Aptitude Test (SweSAT).
The decision came after criticism from 21 Swedish university and higher education principals, who voiced their concerns in an editorial piece in the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.
The academics argued that it would be unsafe to continue with the plans for SweSAT exams this autumn due to the risk of “cluster contagion” of coronavirus, as students would sit for hours in closed rooms. The professors represent higher education institutions that are responsible for holding the exams every year, once in spring and once in autumn.
“If the 21 principals say they cannot take responsibility for the spread of the infection, then I can’t ignore them or change my mind,” Karin Roding, director-general of UHR, told Radio Sweden. “The university principals do not want to take responsibility for conducting the exam during the autumn, but would rather spend time and resources on conducting two tests as safely as possible in spring.”
The UHR had warned in August that the exams might be cancelled for a second time in a row after the spring round had been withdrawn. However, after criticism from several right-wing political parties, the UHR hinted that the autumn exams might nevertheless proceed.
The debate about running the exams intensified after the government decided to amend the Higher Education Ordinance. The ordinance sets out the rules for university admissions, and the amendment would have allowed the UHR to run the SweSAT for smaller groups—open only for people who had not previously sat it.
In the Svenska Dagbladet piece, the university principals said it would not be possible to organise a coronavirus-safe sitting in October, even for smaller groups. They wrote that the Swedish Public Health Agency has identified cluster outbreaks of Covid-19 as most likely to contribute to a second wave of the coronavirus this autumn and winter.
The implementation of the entrance exams this autumn, they wrote, would almost certainly contribute to such clusters, they said.
“The exam is perceived as important to students, and a number of them would be likely to complete the exam even though they have cold symptoms and may even carry the Covid-19 infection,” the principals said. “There is no legal basis for us as exam organisers to turn away students who show such symptoms.”
As with many elements of Swedish public administration, the decision whether or not to hold the exams was entirely up to the exam organisers, so the government had little say in the decision. “It appears we are going to have to wait another few months before an exam can be carried out in an infection-safe way,” said Matilda Ernkrans, Sweden’s minister of higher education.
Ernkrans said that the government had done everything they could to ease the situation, including making sure that exam results from previous years are to be valid for eight years rather than the usual five, supporting people who had passed the exam but delayed their entrance into university. The government would also be providing extra funding to make it possible to hold more than one entrance exam next spring, she said.