Oxford tutors denied this week that their finalists are “little better than A level students”, following a story in the national press which centred on the negative comments made by Oxford examiners.
The story, printed in the Daily Telegraph last weekend, featured excerpts from recent Oxford Examiners’ Reports. These included allegations that recent candidates struggled to spell “erupt”, “across” or “buries”, that their answers were guilty of “intellectual thinness and outdatedness” and that papers showed “haphazard and random generalisations.’
The story was accompanied by a caption, which read, “They are hailed as the brightest and best, but new documents reveal Oxford dons’ despair at some students’ failure to revise and inability to spell.”
Yet Oxford tutors this week suggested that such problems are not necessarily typical of students’ answers. Many questioned the fairness of selective quotation from Examiners’ Reports and explained apparently falling standards as a result of poor teaching in schools.
Dr Robin Knight, lecturer in Mathematics at Worcester College, told Cherwell, “A well-designed exam has to be such that some candidates will do better than others; in consequence, some scripts will be, by comparison, poor.”
Knight denied that there has been any decline in the innate ability of Oxford students, insisting, “Our undergraduates are just as bright, talented and creative as they ever were.”
Another Oxford Maths tutor, meanwhile, conceded that overall standards appear to have fallen, but argued the ablest students are as intelligent as ever, claiming, “I think the average quality has gone down, but that the top quality remains constant. This probably isn’t only something that happened recently, but it has been going on for some time already.”
Professor Peter Oppenheimer, an Emeritus Fellow of Christ Church who was an Oxford Economics tutor for over thirty years, blamed the apparently falling standards on school teaching, rather than on students, saying, “One’s pupils are just as able and willing as ever; what it means is that tutors have to make up for poor teaching, or resign themselves to not reaching the standards of earlier generations.”
He suggested that Examiners’ Reports have always included strong criticism of students’ performances, arguing, “It is very dangerous to quote recent Examiners’ Reports unless you have reports from 20 years ago. I am willing to bet that they contained just as many derogatory remarks then.”
One member of the English faculty criticised the Telegraph’s coverage of the issue, labelling the story “unusually dumb”, and adding, “They cherry-picked quotations from various examiners’ reports (it was unclear to me whether these were for Mods or FHS) and suggested these marked some decline, whereas my experience is that such comments have spiced every set of reports from every set of examiners since examinations began.”
The tutor conceded, however, that school teaching leaves undergraduates less prepared than in previous generations, saying that “A levels are now so directed that all but the very best students can have difficulty thinking independently” and that “with a few happy exceptions, the standard of teaching at state secondary schools in this country is scandalously poor.”
Caitlin Spencer, a second-year classicist at Corpus Christi College, also criticised teaching in schools, claiming, “Independent thought is not rewarded by the exam system and schools are under pressure to focus solely upon exam results as opposed to learning for its own sake and for enjoyment.
“The Telegraph article seems to choose to ignore these facts and instead prefers to join in the well loved sport of Oxbridge-bashing when the issue is clearly a much more widespread problem.”
A spokesperson for the University said, “Oxford academics expect very high standards from Oxford students – so it isn’t necessarily surprising to see such sharply critical comments about the minority of students performing below standard. Overall though, Oxford students show extremely high levels of performance at finals, as evidenced by the number of firsts and 2:1 degrees.”