High standard upheld

August 20, 1999

In "Looking for a slice of the American pie" (THES, July 30), Simon Blackburn makes some inaccurate observations about this year's bachelor of philosophy examination. By claiming that some candidates had been failed "by one mark on one paper" and that "the examiners had not even bothered to viva them", Blackburn maligns the examiners and presents a distorted picture of the examination process.

As a certification of competence to teach at university level, the BPhil is a prestigious degree awarded only to candidates who achieve an exacting standard. Candidates (who submit their work anonymously) must satisfy examiners on all three written papers and a thesis. Each written paper and thesis is independently double-marked by two examiners, who award grades, not numerical scores. If the examiners agree that one of the papers, or the thesis, does not reach the required standard, then the candidate fails the examination and a viva would not redeem him or her.

In the event of disagreement on a borderline paper, a viva is used, as it is in the case of certified ill-health during the examination or unclarities in examination material that might be rectified by a viva.

In the case of unsuccessful candidates this year, every paper or thesis that had been graded as a fail was third-marked (mostly by the external examiner) to make sure that no misjudgement was involved; for all such candidates, the third examiner was of the opinion that the paper or thesis clearly did not meet the standard required for the BPhil and therefore there was no cause for using a viva. The disappointment of the candidates concerned is understandable, but the university is satisfied that no candidate was treated unfairly and that the high standards of the BPhil have been upheld.

Paul Smith, junior proctor University of Oxford.

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