AS THOUSANDS of students sit their finals this week, the authorities at Oxford are looking at ways of making them feel less pressured. The increasing number of suicides and stress casualties among students has led the university to consider changing its 100-year-old exam system.

The move follows four student deaths in the last eight months, and a report by the university earlier in the year which showed that Oxford students were 36 per cent more likely to take their lives than other young people.

The current exam system, which began evolving just before the turn of the century, involves two intense periods of testing, in the first and final years. If students fail their first-year exams they are kicked out, and if they do badly in their finals they get a poor degree, no matter how well they have done during their three years. For their finals they have to wear subfusc - gown and mortarboard - and go to a special examination hall outside their college.

The effects of exam stress range from bursting into tears in the hall and turning in blank papers to depression and the use of tranquillisers or alcohol. The Warneford psychiatric hospital in Oxford used to expect a number of student patients during May and June, and even had a room where particularly nervous students could sit papers. Now the student counselling service has been improved and many students are able to get help from their GPs. The result is that the university counselling service and doctors' surgeries both report an increase in requests for help during the June examination period.

The authorities want to reduce the pressures. 'We are certainly reviewing the exam stucture and looking at a number of possibilities,' says Elsa Bell, the university welfare officer. 'We discussed these problems before the most recent suicides, but I think those events did focus the issue.

'We have tried using extended essays in final assessments in the English faculty and that may be extended to other faculties. We are also looking at whether the exams could be spaced out more and if the system puts state-educated pupils at a disadvantage.'

Student representatives would welcome such changes, but warn that they would not go far enough. 'There are a number of improvements that have yet to be properly discussed,' said Emma Westcott, the student union welfare officer. 'The present exam system is like a short sharp shock and there is virtually no consideration of assessed work.

'We should not have the finals over an intense two-week period and shouldn't make people dress up and go somewhere else. I would like the university to consider split finals, where you take some exams at the end of your second year.'

Ms Westcott believes the exam structure does put state-educated pupils and women at a disadvantage. 'The system works well for students who were used to this type of stress at public school, where cramming is common. But it can paralyse students from state schools, where continual assessment is taken into account and the atmosphere may be less intense.

'The suicides certainly had an effect on both students and the university authorities and we welcome the increase in funding for the counselling service. But the problem remains that it deals more with the after-effects than the cause.'

Ms Westcott says that women may be at a particular disadvantage within the system. 'Women only get half the number of first-class degrees that men do. At most other universities they get two-thirds, and at a few, like Manchester Metropolitan and the Open University, the numbers are equal.

'It's not that women have a problem with the system, it's that the system has a problem with women. Men feel more confident about risk-taking, but the flashy confidence that you require is not necessarily a good academic quality.'

A spokesperson for an inter-collegiate working party that is being set up at Oxford University to discuss what can be done to improve the system and reduce student anxiety, said: 'I've known students break down in tears in the middle of exams, and some just can't take it all. The trouble is three years' work is just being assessed in two weeks.'

The structure of the system is not the only cause of stress at exam time. 'Students can experience problems for all sorts of reasons,' says Mrs Bell. 'First, they may be anxious because they haven't worked enough. They've been unrealistic about what they can achieve in the last few weeks. Some worry because everything comes together: leaving university, finding a job, joining the adult world. Exams are deeply symbolic of the end of an era.

'Then there are people who are repeating a family dynamic about competitiveness and rivalry, expressing a fear of being better - or worse - than members of their family.

'Some students are suddenly afraid of examinations and that may go back to an experience such as the death of a parent at the time of O- and A-levels, and that fear returns. Then there is the feeling of isolation when you go into the examination hall and are simply a number on a page.'

The people who cope best, she said, are those who have a strong sense of their personal worth, and see exams as a creative challenge.

(Photograph omitted)