Deus ex machinations

The precedents, the tear-stained notes, the wisdom of Solomon (The External): Frank Burnet wonders whatever happened to exam boards

August 14, 2008

I have vivid memories of my first year as a certified academic. I had been appointed to a tutorial fellowship at Kent and had gone, at least in my own mind, from nobody to somebody at the speed of light. Suddenly I was seeing the academic machine in all its regal rickety-ness from the inside. I arrived early on a sunny Saturday morning for my first-ever exam board, eager to see how academic justice was dispensed.

The venue was the department's smallest lecture theatre, and a minion had been given the unenviable task of chalking the complete marks of the 25 candidates on the blackboard, giving the numbers a reassuringly provisional look.

My colleagues trickled in under the beady gaze of the head of department, who arrived with His Holiness, the external examiner. I realised immediately that this was a game you did not try to join until you had watched the experienced players going through their paces.

The first thing I noticed as proceedings began was that all staff members had their own exam board personae, and would be nudged into participating in deliberations by the HoD, particularly if he thought they would support his point of view. The most vocal were the Dr Unimpressables, Professor In-my-day, Mr Extenuating and Dr Precedent.

Final decisions were often made by a show of hands, with most people sitting on theirs. If all else failed, the Solomon-like judgment of the external prevailed.

Making arguments for extenuating circumstances was the responsibility of tutors, and were often supported by no more than a tear-stained but delicately perfumed note that had been pushed under an office door.

Contrast this with the boards I now attend. They take place in large light spaces, and the numbers attending can exceed 75. Candidates are processed on an industrial scale, and no one can ever keep track of who has done, re-done or not-done what module and when. In short, it should no longer be possible to argue that Laura should get the first for which she was always destined, even though her overall mark of 46 is disappointing.

However, and I find this vastly reassuring, even after 30 years of unremitting consultant-led change-management strategies, the same characters still get their annual outing. Professor In-my-day is still asserting that anyone who cannot do an accurate gravimetric analysis should be denied an honours degree - in any subject. The young and thrusting Dr Unimpressables are still busy pulling up the academic ladder behind themselves. Dr Precedent has adapted well to the computer age and now refers to spreadsheets of double-bed proportions, and dear old Mr Extenuating still makes reference to the never-to-be-disclosed but nonetheless awful things that have befallen Laura's pets or grandparents, although he can now share this intelligence with members of his Verification and Investigation Committee for Extenuation Submissions.

The administrative process may have been transformed from shambolic to gothic, but Laura still has a fighting chance of winning the academic hurdles, even if she has run round most of the obstacles.

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