Letter: Oxford is tough, and long may it remain so

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Hester Lacey's criticisms of Oxford ("Telling tales out of Oxford", Real Life, 27 July) are prejudiced and unrealistic. Oxford's system of selection, tutorials and examinations is indeed tough because the basis of its teaching is the ability to deal with information at a very high level, especially under pressure. Final exams are not only a test of short- term memory. They demand thorough specialist knowledge of a subject, and reward innovation and flair as much as hard graft.

Whether Oxford's pressures are a challenge or an order depends on the student. However, the majority of those with problems find help and support. When personal problems affected my work, my tutor's advice was that my well-being must always come first. The point of an Oxford course is not to turn in regular essays but to enjoy a far wider experience.

It is simply untrue that "helping others who are struggling is actively discouraged". The advice quoted, that students should not risk their own welfare when taking responsibility for others, is given along with details of advisory and counselling services. No one should have to deal with serious problems - their own or others' - alone, when help is available elsewhere.

Such a system has its failures, especially in an environment of undeniable tension, and Oxford inevitably attracts perfectionists and the highly strung. Nothing excuses the failure to see or act on Sarah Napuk's distress, and Oxford should certainly review its pastoral care in the light of this tragedy, but the exam system itself cannot be blamed. Oxford must resist the forces calling for its reform, or risk the loss of its exceptional excellence in an ill-considered lowering of standards.

Eleanor Rees

Windsor, Berkshire

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