10 things I hate about Cambridge: exams – they’re the last great unequaliser

Yes I know that’s not a word, it’s called managing expectations.

bme attainment gap Cambridge Cambridge University column exam term Exams exams suck jack may jack may get angry

Readers, h8erz, friends, romans, countrymen, my mother — this is the beginning of the end.

Today I sit the first of my final examinations as a student at Cambridge University.

If everything goes to plan (‘if’ here being one of those big capitalised garishly-flashing neon ‘if’s), I’ll be finishing my time as a Cambridge student in exactly a week’s time. Over the course of twelve hours, split up into four three-hour long stints, my entire worth as a student will be assessed.

if you won't pay me to photoshop i will flaunt what little skills i have obsessively

if you won’t pay me to photoshop i will flaunt what little skills i have obsessively

I’m all for tradition, don’t get me wrong, but there does seem to be something perverse in the idea that three years of £9,000-a year ‘teaching’, reading, and learning can really be fairly and comprehensively assessed quite so flippantly.

If you generically concocted what somebody who profits from the exam system might look like, it would be me.

I’m a white cisgender man, I’m so over my homosexuality I might as well be straight, and I spent many years at those kinds of schools where they train you exactly how to jump through the hoops of the exams system like you’re some pathetic but adorable doe-eyed Border Collie storming its way through Crufts’ quarter-finals.

Those who struggle with stress and anxiety conditions can have their whole lives vastly impacted by their performances on just a few individual days. There’s no doubt, either, that the system works in favour of certain demographics over others — whether that’s because of the atmosphere of the exam hall itself, the structure of the tests themselves, or something else, we have to be vigilant of the fact that men still overwhelmingly get more firsts than women in plenty of subjects, and that the BME attainment gap is a real and pressing issue.

Even aside from such serious politicising issues, there is the simple and generic fact that if you’re having a bad day you can knock out a quarter of your final degree result.

If you’re unlucky enough to have two exams on the same day, there’s potential to have your entire final results blemished by the fact that you’d run out of hayfever pills that morning.

Similarly, the fact that exams still require handwriting for the vast majority of students is a serious issue.

Most of us don’t handwrite more than a few biro scribbles in a lecture when you wake up from your nap and realise the lecturer’s actually sort of interesting, and to go from that to turbo-writing sheafs of paper in three hours is a hugely difficult transition. Yes, it’s not an unreasonable requirement with a bit of practice, but why bother?

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Now, don’t fret. I’m not going to go so far down the hip, friendly, lefty alleyway of ‘progress’ and say we should scrap the things altogether, everyone should get a gold star for trying, and degrees should be awarded to all on a flat classless level purely for trying and having stuck it out for three years.

Fundamentally, if universities are to be taken seriously then they must aspire to be genuinely and completely meritocratic. It’s common knowledge that they are not so in their admissions processes.

Despite some progress, the private-school old boys still come to Cambridge in disproportionate numbers, BME applicants are still hugely underrepresented, and the white working class are swept so far under the carpet it’s not surprising that most commentary seems to forget they’re there.

But what we forget is that the end-point of the university conveyor-belt is just as bad, if not worse. Exams, in all honesty, are an old-fashioned harbinger of a lost era of the days when colleges had 10pm curfews and a gyp was the name of your servant (hence, gyp room).

If Cambridge wants to keep hold of the mantle of being an innovative university as much as a world-leading one, it should lead the pack with new ideas.

By diversifying the way we’re assessed, everybody wins.

If we include more options for coursework and research-led projects, we ensure that those who crack under the intense pressure cooker of three-hours in a dry sports hall don’t lose out — hell, we could even get really funky and think about oral assessment; vivas, presentations, debates, discussions.

If we take into account the academic performance of students throughout the year with a partial introduction of something akin to an American GPA system, we can make sure that layabouts who do no work and go into crunch mode a week before exams (hi, hello, yes, hi there) aren’t given an easy ride of it.

I googled 'lazy student' and this came up so I guess there probably is a god

I googled ‘lazy student’ and this came up so I guess there probably is a god

If we make space for non-academic commitment and achievement to be rewarded, we can make sure that those who push themselves to do better and achieve more – whether it be rowing for the university, writing an opera, or fighting for other students’ rights, are recognised for the huge contribution they make to the life of this place outside of the narrow confines of mere academia.

If I get a good tripos mark, I want it to be because I’ve genuinely earned it in a number of different ways and through a number of different means. And if I haven’t earned it, I want to do as badly as I deserve to, because a system that genuinely scrutinises my brain, my commitment, and my effort has looked carefully and found me wanting.

I hate exams because they’re built for people like me, but anyone with any interest in genuine equality should wake up and smell the perfume.

Exams further skew the system towards the most privileged, and unfairly punish those who already struggle the most.

I’d #boycott #noplatform my exams, but, you know, self-interest and my life and stuff. But I really do hate them.