Class lists: a tradition Cambridge can do without

Just because students' exam results have always been publicly released doesn't make it right, says Priscilla Mensah

April 12, 2016
Senate House, University of Cambridge
Source: iStock
Senate House, University of Cambridge

Following the news that the University of Cambridge may no longer publicly release students’ exam results, Kwasi Kwarteng, Conservative MP for Spelthorne, said: “If modern students can't get through what people have gone through for centuries, I'm a bit worried about the standards of Cambridge and the sort of people they are letting in.”

Over the course of the past year, as president of Cambridge University Students’ Union, I have written, called, emailed and argued for the end of public class lists at Cambridge, a tradition that has persisted for centuries. As images commonly used to depict public class lists would suggest, the current system dictates that at the end of every year, a student’s performance can be searched for openly and remarked upon by other students, or anyone for that matter.

Within higher education today, talk of “student choice” abounds: this phrase peppered the recent higher education Green Paper. Within this framework of understanding, abolishing public class lists is simple. Your grades are a personal matter. A process whereby students observe their academic performance as part of a ranking against fellow students runs counter to the promotion of unique educational experiences and outcomes championed within higher education today.

Yet it appears to be this very contradiction that the likes of Kwarteng protect under the guise of tradition. I am not sure it is ever valid to argue that, because some endured the humiliations of a system in the past, that system should continue in the name of consistency.

The implication that “modern” students are just getting softer is without basis. In the age of smartphones and a culture of online sharing, a student’s right to privacy is ever more vulnerable and requires safeguarding if we are to uphold genuine student choice and autonomy. To give a common example, a student who may have failed due to circumstances beyond their control can have themselves tagged in a photo of the list on Facebook, with a witty caption for extra enjoyment. This information is not confined to the walls of the Senate House, as it may have been for Kwarteng and his friends.

This is about more than the impact on individual students. In 1981, Peter Tompkins, a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, created a ranking of all the Cambridge colleges using students’ grades. Year on year, at the bottom of this table you will find the women’s and mature colleges: not for lack of student performance, but due to unsound metrics disregarding course type, cohort size or the value-added dimensions of grading. I do not want to suggest the Tompkins Table can be made better; it cannot. I ran for president on a platform to tackle disparities between Cambridge colleges and on fostering cohesive welfare practices across the university. Rankings – produced as a result of public class lists – underwrite social and cultural barriers, certainly not in the interest of all Cambridge students.

Cambridge was traditionally a university for men; it was traditionally considered a finishing school for elite men. Cambridge traditionally did not have students in large numbers coming from inner city state schools like my own. I have witnessed Cambridge pass progressive policies to the benefit of its current and prospective students in this year alone, and the abolition of public class lists would no doubt be a step in the right direction for the reputation and global standing of our institution.

The traditionalist must put forward an argument more robust than “it happened in the past”. The university will be putting its best foot forward with a decision to abolish public class lists, and the students’ union supports it wholeheartedly.

Priscilla Mensah is president is of Cambridge University Students' Union.

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Reader's comments (4)

I loved the publicly displayed results at my British university. The thought of appearing there made me work harder.
If you choose to sit for a public examination to acquire a public status; a degree, then the public has a right to know the class you obtained in that examination. I remember when The Times published all university degree results and with the internet all universities should be made to publish these results again.
Is it a public examination any more if the students have taken out personal loans that will be repaid later?
Yes, still a public exam I think. I don't see the need for secrecy here.