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University Exams

January 29th, 2018

Letter to Sunday Times, published in slightly edited form on 28th January 2018

University exams in the physical sciences are not intended just as tests of abstract understanding, but of ability to rapidly bring that understanding to bear on problems posed by the exams. Far from this being untypical of real life as suggested by your Oxford source (January 21st), it is exactly what high-flyers in industry, for instance, are expected to do when handling demanding situations.

It is much to be regretted therefore that the Oxford University Maths department has softened the demands of its exams by increasing the time allowed to answer questions, from 90 minutes to 105, simply to increase the chances of its women students getting first class degrees. This will simply devalue the Oxford Maths qualification for all students. It is yet another retrograde step at the behest of the current dogma that insists that at the extremes of performance there must be proportionately just as many women as men. Why should anyone expect this to be true especially from such a small cohort of women Maths students (33)? Perhaps a greater proportion of clever women choose to study English Literature for instance.

It might be better all round if the Oxford Maths Department adopted what for many decades has been the standard in the Russell Group universities where I have examined, namely the three hour paper. This would allow the Oxford examiners to set twice the length of questions to answer and give greater scope for sorting out the really able from the rest.