Watch out for the new Asian tigers

March 31, 2006

China and India have moved on from producing over-examined students who lack creativity. Not so the UK, says Maria Misra.

While French students take once more to the barricades, the British reach for the writs. In retaliation for this summer's proposed strike action, which involves not marking finals scripts, our students plan to sue us for the right to be examined. When I was a student, exams were something to fear and, if possible, to avoid. Today's students, by contrast, are greedy for grading, never tire of testing and have an insatiable appetite for "feedback". While the Sixties generation clamoured for permanent revolution, the current cohort demands continuous assessment.

Indeed, some Oxford University students are campaigning for personalised postmortems on their first-year exams - which do not even count towards their degrees.

It has become a cliche of the modern pedagogical rant to bemoan this lamentable conformism and to attribute it to the constant school reforms of the past decade, with their emphasis on endless testing, grading and passing of Key Stages. Nevertheless, I was taken aback at our last open day when the main preoccupation of prospective students was not the nature of the course, the range of extracurricular activities or even the price of beer, but when, how, and how often they would be examined, graded and "fedback" to. The revelation that Oxford historians took no formal exams in the second year was greeted with incredulity and suspicion.

The upside of all this Foucauldian self-policing is undoubtedly that students are much better at passing exams. At Oxford, the third is now almost unheard of and the 2:2 may be on its way out. I am pretty sure this is not because the papers are getting easier; the scripts are just better.

They are cogently structured, competently argued and full of relevant detail. Students are working harder and being effectively taught how to pass exams.

This looks like a "good thing": universities are successfully cultivating a highly educated workforce and putting Britain in pole position in the global knowledge economy. Only in this way, Chancellor Gordon Brown tells us, can we hope to compete with the rising Asian giants. Asia may have a monopoly on cheap manpower, but creativity, the true turbine of economic power, will preserve the West's comparative advantage.

But will the Government's approach really put us in the global first division? Ironically, its strategy looks remarkably like an attempt to imitate an old Asia, rather than compete with the new. We used to scoff at the Japanese for their test-obsessed, production-line education system, where cramming begins at 2 and finishes at 22, with perfectly assembled, but in essence Identikit, model graduates. But this educational model seems to have become our blueprint.

The new Asian tigers, meanwhile, are determined not to replicate Japanese mistakes. Both China and India are turning their attention to the quality of the graduates they turn out. While the Blair Government fetishises examining, quotas and such like, the Indian Government recently established a high-level commission to look into the state of higher education in the sub-continent. It concluded that India's future lay in fostering a genuinely creative graduate community. High on its list of recommendations is the abandonment of cramming, exam-obsession and testing - problems that have dogged India's universities since the days of the Raj. While India plans to turn its crammers into proper universities, in Britain proper universities are in danger of becoming crammers.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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