Cambridge students dispel myth of university's academic excellence

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Students at Cambridge University are questioning what they say is the "myth of excellence" perpetuated by their university amid claims its elite education does not provide value for money.

In a submission to Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry into the future of higher education, the students' union says that Cambridge's one-to-one supervision system is failing and that dons need teaching in how to teach.

They say women are particularly likely to lose out because the university's particular exam marking and teaching methods often lead them to underachieve.

Problems arise, they claim, despite favourable funding for Cambridge, which - alongside Oxford and London - receives more tuition money per student than other universities to support its collegiate system.

Amid suggestions that Cambridge will include a warning of possible tuition fees in its new prospectus, the student union is calling for a full-scale debate on the quality and funding of a Cambridge education.

An "alternative lecture" organised last week by the union, titled "The Myth of Excellence", attracted over 100 undergraduates, and will be followed by further debates later this term.

The university counters that it is taking all necessary steps to review its operations, including advertising for a researcher to examine differences in achievement between the sexes.

In its submission to the Dearing inquiry, approved by a council of elected student union representatives from every college, the union claims that the supervision system, in which undergraduates are taught singly or in very small groups, militates against women students by rewarding confidence and assertiveness which is more commonly shown by men.

They say the university should act swiftly to tackle the imbalance in the number of first-class degrees achieved by men and women. Last year, over 22 per cent of male undergraduates gained firsts, compared with less than 13 per cent of women.

The students also raise concerns over the standard of teaching in supervisions, and call for teacher training, currently provided by the university for all academics who want it, to be made mandatory.

It is nearly three years since the university's Senior Tutors' Committee published an interim report on women students' exam results, which acknowledged: "An institution that has been exclusively male for centuries and whose ethos is formed by class attitudes, as well as academic values, is not necessarily transformed by the arrival of a handful of women students."

Cambridge Student Union women's officer, Denise Burford, said the university, which saw its first mixed colleges 25 years ago, was taking the issue seriously but it took the view that women should adapt to suit the ethos of the institution.

She pointed to a survey of undergraduates at Trinity Hall last November, which revealed that most women had lowered their expectations of their academic performance since starting the course. None predicted themselves firsts, whereas 13 per cent of men did so.

Ms Burford said: "We have looked more closely at other universities and found that their feedback and appeals systems are far ahead of ours."