Oxford has become an exam factory

Courses are inflexible and aren’t interdisciplinary


Oxford University was ranked first in the world yet again by Times Higher Education. Yet this rosy picture disguises major academic problems long present in this institution, notably its inflexible course structure and lack of interdisciplinary interaction.

Under the current system at Oxford, we choose a course and only study topics relevant to that subject. Taking classes from another department is sometimes possible, but such options are few and topics limited. Simply put, the education system at Oxford is not designed for the free pursuit of knowledge. In fact, this idea of intellectual exploration is nowhere to be seen in the university’s vision; only under the finer points of the strategic plan was “[ensuring] students achieve their full academic potential” mentioned. Then can one’s potential ever be realised if students are never given the opportunity to explore their interests and discover where their potential lies?

This question is especially pertinent to those coming from the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, who have had few opportunities to study beyond the standard curriculum. In most cases, they stuck to subjects which they excelled in at A-level – and those subjects tend to be in the sciences. As a result, we see an alarming chasm between the percentage of state school graduates pursuing sciences and arts.

To truly increase access, it’s not enough to have open days and encourage six-formers to apply to Oxford. Instead, the university must strive to provide an equal playing ground for students from different backgrounds – not by restricting the freedom of intellectual pursuits but by actively encouraging them through allowing every student to explore any field of interest. Such a measure inevitably calls for a revolution not only in this institution’s course structure but also in its admissions policy.

However, merely reforming the above can only be a superficial remedy. Oxford must make the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake top of its vision. A cursory skim of its current vision suggests a huge commitment to “generating” knowledge for “economic growth.” Woe to Oxford, an institution where knowledge is constantly being generated. Perhaps Oxford should to change its name to “Factory of Oxford” to better reflect its vision.

Nevertheless, it’s deeply disturbing that an elite institution as Oxford takes such a naive and utilitarian view on the pursuit of knowledge. Ever since the first scientific discovery, most discoveries were not driven by money but sparked by curiosity. Only in modern times do we see increasingly profit-driven research, which rarely has a wider impact on other fields. After all, why would any modern corporates fund research in some esoteric branch of mathematics with no applicable value? If Oxford truly intends to “lead the world in research and education,” it must abandon its childish attitude toward knowledge and encourage the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, which requires a more flexible curriculum.

Oxford must open department doors (quite literally – what can be more discouraging for someone interested in a certain subject than being denied access to the faculty building?). It should cultivate an interdisciplinary vision and encourage interdisciplinary discussions. We live in an age in which the borders between academic disciplines continue to blur and academic success is increasingly achieved by connecting the dots between seemingly unrelated subjects. Gaining a deep understanding of one subject without much knowledge of others is becoming ever more difficult. The very act of drawing out a list of courses means many combinations of subjects are excluded: what if, for instance, one wants to pursue natural sciences, or gender studies?

One inherent drawback of the Oxford system is a dichotomy of core subject knowledge and supporting knowledge more thoroughly studied in other departments. As a result, such peripheral knowledge is often taught by non-specialists in a way that only includes the bare minimum necessary for us to better understand our core subject. For example, take the mathematics classes for physicists; the name “mathematical methods” says it all – the course is not intended to be systematic or rigorous, rather it merely aims to teach the mathematical tools applicable to physics. Granted, this is exactly what prospective bankers hope for, but others lose a precious opportunity to develop mathematical acumen and an alternative perspective to physical problems.

Such prevalence of the utilitarian approach to knowledge is deeply worrying and perhaps a by-product of the specialised curriculum. Cultivating an interdisciplinary perspective involves a broad and formal study of subjects, including areas with no apparent connection or application to another field. The Oxford system limits such possibilities and is therefore unlikely to produce interdisciplinary visionaries.

Tackling those issues requires not just a change of policy, but also a re-evaluation of this institution’s mission and vision. Oxford cannot rest on its laurels in the name of tradition anymore – we must reform.


  1. If you wanted a pick-n-mix degree, why did you apply to Oxford? Oxford degrees are respected because they are rigorous. You study what the world experts in your field have decided you should study. They know better than you what is needed for you to become proficient in the subject of study you have chosen. If you disagree, go elsewhere, and give up your place to someone who appreciates what Oxford offers.


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