Dreaming spires come tumbling down

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IT WAS all terribly, terribly funny. At the end of Trinity term, Oxford was awash with fresh-faced young Emmas and Jamies celebrating the end of their Finals, swigging from champagne bottles and generally looking forward to an afternoon of celebration down by the river. Word was out that some chap was even going to hurl himself from atop Magdalen Bridge and emerge with only his scholar's gown to conceal his modesty - and one mustn't miss a spectacle like that.

Two hours before, these students had all been crammed like battery hens into exam rooms not known for atmospheres conducive to sustained or even rational thinking, with something like three hours in which to complete essays upon three different topics.

Three or four years of teaching, of writing dissertations, of doing research and batting ideas around with fellow students and tutors, all condensed into five or six sides of hurriedly-written argument. An entire degree based upon what you can remember, what you think the examiners will like hearing, and how good you are at writing with cramped fingers in near- Arctic temperatures.

Having said that, David Blunkett can only be applauded in his efforts to demystify the marking process for younger students. Nothing is worse than receiving that slip of paper in the post, on which (you imagine) some septuagenarian old-boy has branded your low grade, accompanied by hellish laughter and visions of a lifetime of unemployment.

For students who genuinely believe they have been downmarked, or simply want to see where they went wrong, the exam system appears to be a comprehensive network of denials, rebuffs and refusals aimed at putting the hapless youngster back in her or his place.

Blunkett's only say on higher education is also aimed at making formerly closed institutions more accessible. He wants to encourage universities to recruit disabled and "poor" people. I do think places such as Oxford and Cambridge have a genuinely fair proportion (around 50 per cent) of non-private educated students, but it all depends on how poor Blunkett wants to go. I can see dons in the throes of an organisational crisis over this one, sat in their dining room mumbling "Ah, yes, now how to get some more of these... these poor people into the colleges? Very important... Tell me, where can one find such people?"

It's a shame that Blunkett's measures on exam procedures stop at A-levels. He does nothing to address the wider issue of whether exams are the best way to test students' knowledge in the first place. Discussions about this take place every single year ( for some schools) as entire families are tortured by the nerves of their revising offspring and, often, by the tears and frustration which accompany a one-off bad performance in the exam hall.

It is just tradition and laziness which is keeping the exam grind going. Some of the more "progressive" courses and institutions have included course-work and mid-term testing in their Finals marking scheme, but others still insist upon whipping their alumni into a panic every Easter holiday and ensuring that the planned skiing holiday's put on hold for a while as we all lose ourselves in copies of huge essays we wrote five or six terms ago.

Exams are fashioned to be as much a test of stamina as they are of skill, and the system is tied up with some curious notions of young masculinity: a roomful of talented young jocks who've been up burning the midnight oil, racing to their seats and battling their tiredness to emerge sharpest, quickest, cleverest. God forbid this scramble should actually be based upon wide reading and complex thought.

Oxbridge seems strangely opposed to making life fairer for its students. For the English course, only two papers out of eight are tested by dissertation, and even then within a relatively narrow subject margin. I will still have to sit six exams back to back over three days, and know that it will be a time of no sleep and high collective tension.

Although on many levels there are tutors who are very in touch with their pupils, and very enlightened generally, the boys at the top still seem to have the final word. While there is a surprising measure of social leniency during the course of the year, they seem unwilling to give an inch in terms of course organisation.

Perhaps they think writing 10,000 words of an argument which approaches Beowulf from every possible critical and historical angle is somehow easier than getting into your seat at nine-thirty and simply scribbling down everything you've got in your mind, complete with inaccurate quotes, rushed analyses and plagiarised arguments, which is what most students do.