Arcane, unfair and unreasonable: Class lists special report

For over 200 years, Cambridge University has posted public class lists outside Senate House. For just as long, this has been a major concern to students who do not want their exam results to be on display for colleagues, academics and casual passers-by.

Despite this, there remains only one official method of opting out of the system. According to the ‘guidance note on withholding names from class lists', "applications will only be considered where there are exceptional circumstances and for good cause, such as where there is demonstrable medical and/or other appropriate supporting evidence that publication would be likely seriously to endanger a student's health or mental well-being."

However, this is in clear contradiction to the ‘Data Protection Good Practice Note: Publication of examination results by schools' published by the Information Commissioners' Office in 2007, which states that "a school would need to have a justifiable reason to reject someone's objection to publication of their exam results."

This seems to suggest the onus should be on the university to prove a student has no good reason to object to class list publication; at present, the university forces students to prove that they do have good reason to object, creating unnecessary extra worry over what is inevitably already a sensitive issue.

Students without specific health problems but the perfectly reasonable desire not to have their data viewed by prying eyes are told they must provide evidence of trauma and are unable to do so. Asking students who do have personal difficulties to provide evidence of this to their Senior Tutor is intrusive to say the least.

The guidance also forces students to submit an opt-out application by communicating through their Senior Tutor: "Any applications for a name to be withheld from the class list must be submitted by the Tutor on behalf of the student to the Secretary of the Applications Committee."

Central university administrators seem to have a serious objection to being contacted directly by students, although they are quite happy to publish their data without checking students do not object to it first.

But what if a student's poor relationship with their senior tutor is part of the reason their "mental well-being" is likely to be damaged? There is no alternative method offered.

Although most students who do provide medical evidence to their senior tutor and are able to persuade them to pass it on eventually do have their names removed – 21 out of 24 in 2009 – the fact is that many with concerns are put off by the stipulation that evidence must be provided, and many more may be dissuaded from putting an application in at all in the first instance by their senior tutor.

However, this reporter submitted a letter directly to Dr Jonathan Nicholls, the University Registrary (and therefore the person ultimately responsible for University records), detailing places in which the Information Commissioner's guidelines were at odds with the University's own system for opting out, and asking to be removed from the class lists because "publication of examination results outside the Senate House will cause me substantial unwarranted distress and anguish of a real nature."

Less than a week later, a response was received through my college stating "the Applications Committee has approved your application to have your name withheld from the class-list."

No further supporting medical evidence was given in the letter, and none was asked for by the Standing Committee; nor was I told to resubmit my request through my senior tutor.

Ant Bagshaw, former Cambridge University Students' Union (CUSU) Education Officer, and a campaigner for class list reform throughout his time with the organisation, called the letter and its result a success. "This suggests that when the university is confronted with a direct request based on sound arguments following guidance from the information commissioner, regardless of internal university policy, they find it impossible to argue with."

Bagshaw said he was "hardly surprised that the university didn't abide by its own procedures: there are some people in the Old Schools who think they're untouchable, that they can do whatever they like regardless of what students are told and trample over their reasonable expectations and rights.

"One of the saddest things about this is that the university had an opportunity, last year, to make some small changes which would have helped students and decided instead not to bother.

"I was told by multiple reliable sources that the legal advice to the university was that the current systems were unjustifiable but that Alan Clark, a senior manager who lurks in the Old Schools, didn't want to change the rules unless forced to by a student complaint.

"This attitude is outrageous and typifies some of the senior administrators' attitudes to refusing change at any cost," he added.

CUSU continues to challenge the University's established policy on class lists. Current Education Officer Sam Wakeford said: "We are approached by large numbers of students each year who are unhappy about their results being made public, but most are put off by the university's arcane and intrusive procedure from formally applying to prevent it. CUSU is quite clear; students should have the right to keep their name off the Senate House class lists if they wish to."

The university remains adamant that, despite my letter, there has been no formal change to its policy. "The official published regulations relating to class lists still apply," a spokesperson said. "Since your letter, which, it turns out, was bogus, arrived at such short notice at an extremely busy time for the administration and since it was so strongly worded indicating your distress, a decision was taken to overrule that in this instance in your interest."

However, if nothing else, the result of this letter proves one thing – that the system proposed for opting out by the university is not as concrete as the Standing Committee's guidelines would suggest.

With a well-argued application to university authorities, students can avoid the unnecessary and unfair process university procedure would seem to require.

James Burton - TCS Reporter

Photo: gierszewskiArticle First Published 18 June 2010



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