Letter: Examining exams

Sir: I am surprised that so many people should get so excited about the Oxbridge examination system ("Dreaming spires come tumbling down", 20 August). There is no point of principle involved. The examination system one favours depends entirely on the characteristics one wishes to develop and reward.

The chance to learn as much as possible about one's favourite subject, and to come to understand it and to internalise its methods and subject- matter thoroughly enough to be able to pass examinations, is a chance to demonstrate a good memory, to discriminate between the essential and the peripheral, to distinguish between authoritative argument born of understanding and mere orderly recitation of facts and to show that one is psychologically robust enough to exercise independent thought and judgement under pressure.

I suggest that, to settle this question, universities teaching academic subjects should offer students a choice on their first day: course work or exams - the latter with some course-work in the form of a dissertation. If the options are equally demanding, and equally productive of those characteristics which bring students the respect of their peers and future employers, they will quickly become known as furnishing genuinely equivalent academic qualifications. But if one option should turn out to attract resourceful bright sparks while the other becomes favoured by comparative plodders, dullards and precis-merchants, that will quickly become known, too. Employers can then make their choices.

Either way, it is essential that degrees are not devalued as academic qualifications. The way to be happy at university is to do a subject because you are endlessly fascinated by it - rather than as an exercise in social climbing, parent-pleasing or intellectual therapy. The real virtue of exams is that they reward genuine involvement in and enthusiasm for a subject.


London N8