Sorting out the universities, especially Oxbridge

In my youth a friend of mine, ten years older than me, took a BA from Oxford University by translating a long passage of German into English. Nothing else, No translating from English into German. No viva voce. A few years later, my brother-in=law took a BA at Oxford in Chemistry and showed me his papers, one in inorganic chemistry, one in organic chemistry and one practical.

I was interested because I was about to take a Higher National in Chemistry from the Advanced College of Technology in Coventry — a very long way down the academic league table from Oxford University.

The Oxford exam papers turned out to be fair but unhelpful to me because my exams turned out to be more difficult than his. When I remarked on this to my brother-in-law he laughed and disabused me of my notion that all undergraduates at Oxford were bright. In particular he said that the medical undergraduates he knew at Oxford — all previously educated at private schools — were “as thick as two short planks”.

Things at Oxford have changed greatly in the intervening 60 years — but not so radically as might be imagined or as desirable. Despite government’s threats to reduce funds in the last 15 years, it is still six times more difficult for a student with high honours in his A level exams from a state secondary school to be accepted at Oxford University than from a private school. The government, via the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is still pressing Oxford and Cambridge about their woefully preferential admissions.

The QAA are also endeavouring to even up workloads and tone down some of them. The absurd differences between the German and Chemistry students no longer exist but there are still wide variations in some universities, and particularly at Oxford. Some students there are having to work more than 60 hours a week, writing too many essays in haste “clearly to the detriment of rigour, welfare and pedagogy” while other students still have a relatively leisurely passage.

My three triplet grand-daughters all graduated this year from different universities. From all accounts, one of them quite definitely worked 60 hours a week during her last year, another one not far off but the third one barely 20 I judge, spending as much time at a job outside the university as working in it

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