Say no class lists: they don’t celebrate, but discriminate

Reetika Subramanian 1 November 2016

When we first raised this issue, we, like many other students, saw class list publications as a burden on mental health, as well as a gross infringement on personal privacy. However, the more we reached out to the student body at Cambridge for perspectives and experiences, and the more research we conducted, our perception of the scale of the problems class lists posed to the student body grew dramatically.

At first glance, there is already a system in place which allows students to be removed from class lists if their presence is judged by the University to be “likely to seriously endanger a student’s health or mental well-being”. In such an event, medical evidence, a student declaration form, and a Senior Tutor’s declaration should be submitted to support removal. However, this is problematic on several levels: firstly, there is an expense involved in requesting medical evidence and doctors’ letters. Secondly, if a student suffers from mental illness, bureaucracy, as well as being at the mercy of a Senior Tutor’s approval (who may not be fully aware of the student’s circumstances) is completely unnecessary and stress-inducing.

It might seem that all these problems would be resolved by an opt-out system. This is not the case. Any form of class list publication, opt-out or otherwise, does not allow the provision of contextual information alongside the results, an aspect which is hugely problematic. For example, an opt-out system does not address the discrepancy in attainment gaps. We believe that it is inappropriate to publically celebrate individualized results, when the structural impact on results is unequivocally acknowledged. For instance, women were two-thirds less likely to get a first across all undergraduate degrees in 2013/14. In the same year, 91% of all Firsts in Part I History were awarded to men, despite almost equal gender distribution of candidates. This trend, while lestening, is still present across years. In 2015, 21.9% of white undergraduates achieved a First, whereas this figure drops to 9.9% for Black or Black British African students and even further to 8.1% for Mixed-White and Black Caribbean. These figures are all available online at the University of Cambridge Student Statistic Office’s page.         

Cambridge has a huge problem with attainment gaps which needs addressing, rather than displaying on the front of Senate House and the internet.

Online class lists, although Raven protected, are used by employers to choose future employees, providing one example among many why class lists are problematic to societal equality. Even with an opt-out system, there may be employment advantages to choosing to publish your result, even though this may not really be an independent choice.

If people feel that there is an advantage to seeing how other people performed, using methods such as anonymised statistics is a more compassionate and considerate means for all involved, and one which respects the privacy of all. Indeed, as a campaign we are in favour of anonymised statistics, they can be hugely helpful in allaying fears around exam time and managing expectations. This is just another reason why an opt-out system is not good enough. It seems fair to presume that most people who would be happy to have their result published would have achieved well. An opt-out system may well mean that class lists become nothing more than a stressfully inaccurate indicator of general performance.

The ‘Vote No’ campaign does not seek to create a culture wherein good grades are not celebrated. Grades can and should be celebrated, they often are the result of hours of hard work and perseverance. What we want to end is reform in the abolition of the systematic publication of class lists.

Of course, Cambridge has a long history of tradition. However, the defence of archaic and damaging practices on the basis of tradition is one of the worst justifications for the maintenance of class lists. If there is no further support for class lists other than an appeal to tradition, is this a good enough reason? Cambridge needs to be, and be seen to be, a progressive, welcoming environment for minorities and marginalised groups, as well as a positive environment to be a student. This does not mean getting rid of all traditions but that the protection of students and student welfare should be paramount and it is encouraging and reassuring to see reform.