Cambridge University Reporter


Tuesday, 12 May 2009

A Discussion was held in the Senate-House. Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Jeremy Sanders was presiding, with the two Proctors, the two Pro-Proctors, the Registrary's deputy, and seven other persons present.

The following Report was discussed:

Consultative Report of the Council and the General Board, dated 16 March 2009 and 4 March 2009, on the requirements for the B.A. Degree by Honours (Reporter, p. 647).

Professor J. M. RALLISON:

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, extensive discussions about the future of the Tripos took place more than two years ago. A number of Faculties responded that the award of the B.A. (Honours) Degree should require candidates to demonstrate an appropriate depth of study, and that the appropriate depth could be guaranteed in Cambridge only by a Part II Tripos qualification. This recommendation was adopted by the General Board Education Committee, and by the General Board itself.

In 2008, Cambridge was visited by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). The QAA made a formal recommendation to the University that the proposal to require a Part II should be taken forward 'without undue delay'.

The number of students in recent years who would have been affected by the proposed change is small: about twenty each year or less than 0.5 per cent of the total. If the new requirement had been in force, students in this group would have needed an additional year of study to obtain the B.A. (Honours) Degree. The principal consequence of this proposal is thus that a small number of students who choose a cross-disciplinary route through the Tripos would need four years of study rather than three, and that affiliated students in this position would need three years of study rather than two.

A further round of consultation took place with Faculties and Senior Tutors last Michaelmas Term. Some Faculties were in favour of the proposal, some (and also the Senior Tutors) accepted the need to approve the change but expressed sadness that the change was necessary. One Faculty (Asian and Middle Eastern Studies) opposed the change.

The General Board takes the view that the present position represents a reputational risk for the University and that a Part II qualification should now become a formal requirement for the B.A. (Honours) Degree. The present arrangements for students in residence, and those to whom an offer of a place has already been made, should be honoured, however, so that new regulations could not be in place before 2013.

Some criticisms of the proposal have already been conveyed to me and I should take this opportunity to respond.

It has been said that this change will be inimical to interdisciplinarity in the Tripos. To a limited extent that may be true, but to give a sense of scale, several hundred students change subject each year. Many of these changes are of a technical kind, but of the remainder only about ten would be affected; the vast majority would be unaffected. In these ten cases, the subject change would be permitted by the Tripos regulations but an extra year of study would be required. In addition, interdisciplinary borrowing of papers by one Tripos from another but without a formal subject change would continue.

It has also been suggested that some subjects should be exempt from the new requirement on the grounds that Cambridge would lose a competitive advantage over rival institutions in the flexibility of its arrangements. It is not clear to me that an advantage based on a lack of rigour in our assessment methods should be acceptable to us, and that is a proper concern for the QAA too. But equally importantly, the B.A. Degree is jointly owned by all our Faculties and any perceived weakness in the arrangement for one subject is a weakness for all.

The claim is made that Cambridge courses are more demanding than those elsewhere so that a Part I result should suffice for a B.A. Degree. I do not accept (and neither do our external examiners) that in comparison with our close rivals our courses are significantly more demanding; nor do I consider that our Part I courses meet the QAA descriptor for a B.A. (Honours) Degree. A great deal of work on course content would be needed to establish such a claim for all our Tripos subjects to the satisfaction of the QAA.

Finally I should mention concerns that for medical students the option to take a Part I course in, say, Mathematics would no longer be permitted in a three-year B.A. (Honours) Degree. That is indeed the case, though there would be no difficulty, if the biologists wish to do so, in introducing mathematical material into Part II biological courses. In addition, under proposals currently under consideration by the General Medical Council, the option for medics to take a non-medical course for a year would be ruled out for professional accreditation purposes, so the question may become moot.

The Regent House should be aware that there are now some 23 bodies, including the QAA, that scrutinize the content of our Tripos courses for professional purposes: our freedom in both undergraduate teaching and accreditation is constrained. Our strongest defence against such intrusion is that our degrees should be robust and that is the intention of this proposal.

Professor R. J. BOWRING:

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I speak both as Head of House and as a Professor in the one Faculty that actively rejected these proposals. Normally I would hesitate to disagree with the joint wisdom of both Council and General Board, but I note that this is a Consultative Report so I shall speak my mind. I consider this proposal unacceptable and unnecessary.

My first concern lies with paragraph 7 where we read that 'others, including the Senior Tutors' Committee, agreed with some regret, but accepted the external imperative for making such a change.' I am puzzled by this term 'external imperative', because in paragraph 1, the Report makes it clear that the idea was initiated not outside the University at all but by the Education Committee, which produced such a proposal as early as Michaelmas 2007, a full year in advance of the publication of the QAA's revised Framework of August 2008. We are then told that this idea was endorsed by the QAA at its recent audit of the University. No surprise there. But it is this endorsement which is now being presented to us as an 'external imperative'. It looks to me as though the externality has in fact been manufactured, consciously or not, and that the Senior Tutors' Committee have been led up the garden path. In any case, I would ask the Senior Tutors' Committee to look at the matter again with a slightly more jaundiced eye.

My second concern is with paragraph 3, which introduces something called the Higher Education Credit Framework, which is meant to provide some guidelines as to what 'honours' might be. This is followed by an underlying but never clearly articulated assumption that nothing in Part I at Cambridge fits these criteria. I presume this is based on the idea of a straightforward progression from Part I to Part II, but the fact that in some Triposes you can take Part II without having taken Part I shows this assumption to be false. It is then stated in paragraph 4 that 'although the University does not currently operate a credit framework, the guidance provided is perhaps of some assistance in providing a quantification to the descriptors framework.' Leaving aside the barely acceptable English of this sentence, the word 'perhaps' betrays the flaw in the logic. On the contrary, when we read that 'it specifies that, for a B.A. Honours Degree, a minimum of 100 out of 360 credits of the award should be at level 6', it should be obvious to everybody that it is of no assistance to us whatsoever. Either we have a credit system or we don't.

My third concern is that, as paragraph 6 admits, this 'will result in greater restriction of the subject combinations available to students'. Is it not therefore a retrograde step at a time when we are encouraging interdisciplinary study? As far as I can make out (and the Report is not designed for fluent reading) the rationale for such a step (other than what looks like a concocted threat) is that Part II examinations are by definition a more rigorous test than Part I examinations. But is this true? Already we see slippage, since the one-part Management Studies Tripos will be 'deemed' the equivalent of a Part II. How come? Is it being suggested, for example, that a combination of Part IA and Part IB in Modern and Medieval Languages followed by Part IA and Part IB in Chinese or Japanese is any less of an intellectual challenge than a straight MML Part I followed by a Part II? It may be so, but I would like proof rather than assertion. And by denying Honours to students who wish to experiment, or who have come to the end of a particular road through no fault of their own, this proposal threatens to send out all the wrong messages to those who might need to change course for good reasons. I know of more than one University Lecturer who took such a route, as a student here, to considerable advantage. Furthermore, the Report states in paragraph 1 that the regulations should be revised 'to ensure that all pathways to the award [of Honours] are robust'. The logical assumption from this statement is that some are not, and have never been, 'robust'. I disagree and I consider such a statement extremely unfair for what it says about all those who have previously taken what one might call a slightly non-standard route to the degree. The flexibility of the Cambridge Tripos used to be something in which we took pride. Now, all of a sudden, it is to be thrown away. The Natural Sciences still have this kind of flexibility built into their programmes; the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences most emphatically do not, and there are many who chafe under the restrictions of the Tripos even in its present state. What the General Board should be doing is taking a careful look at the Tripos system per se, not messing around with Honours to no purpose.

This leads me to my final point. Paragraph 8 states that the General Board considers that the status quo involves reputational risk for the University. No. It is the constant genuflection to every bureaucratic demand from the outside that threatens our reputation and makes us a laughing stock in the rest of the world. The QAA is at best an advisory body and, as such, we should of course listen politely to its recommendations; but we are under no obligation to do what they say and certainly we should not bend to their every whim. I submit that the standing of the University both at home and abroad is a good deal higher than that of the QAA. The picture this Report paints is a depressing one indeed, of a University not proud about what it does or has done, but quivering in the bushes. Where will it all end? I beg both Council and General Board to think again.


Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, this Report is important for the University because it constitutes a response to one aspect of the recent QAA visitation, and it can be summarized as establishing a principle that students should not gain the award of an Honours B.A. without taking a Part II course. The QAA in their visit picked out the fact that the flexibility inherent in the Tripos system allows a small number of students to qualify for an Honours Degree without so taking a Part II course. The QAA made the sound educational argument that an Honours Degree at this, as in other universities, should represent a progression through three years of study culminating in an intellectually demanding third year course.

I should declare an interest at this stage, in that as Director of Medical and Veterinary Education, some of the students most affected by this Report are the preclinical medical and veterinary students who are my direct responsibility. Having declared that interest, however, I would like to speak in support of this Report, because I feel strongly that the educational principle that there should be a clear progression through the Tripos, is a correct one. It cannot be fair or equitable for even a minority of students to obtain an Honours Degree on the basis of Part I courses only. It is, to my mind, completely fallacious to argue that such Part I courses, excellent though they may be, give students the same depth and rigour of intellectual training as a Part II course. By continuing to allow even a few students to graduate with Honours having taken only Part I courses, we not only devalue the standard of that qualification, but we are making the Tripos distinctly easier for these students compared to their fellow students who do a Part II course, and that is not fair.

The second point I would like to make is that despite what may be rumoured, the number of students affected by the changes outlined in this Report are actually very small (only nineteen last year). There is another important general principle here, and it is that we must frame our Tripos regulations in terms of what works for the majority of students rather than making special provisions or exceptions for a tiny minority.

That deals with what I see as the main principles behind this Report, but we do also have to consider the effects of these changes on the minority of students. From my point of view - and I'm talking about medics and vets here - there are two groups of affected students: firstly, affiliated students who are taking a second degree in medicine or veterinary medicine. Such students currently acquire a B.A. at the end of their second year before going on to clinical study. It is very nice for such students to get this degree, but it is not in any way necessary for their progression to clinical study. That requirement is fulfilled by their first degree (and many of them already have a Cambridge degree, so they cannot take a second B.A. anyway) and by their professional qualifying exams. The second category contains those few medical and veterinary students who wish to take a Part IA or Part IB in, say, an arts or humanities subject in their third year. We should not discourage such students from pursuing their interests in, for example, music or languages, but they for their part, should not then expect to gain an equivalent qualification to their fellow students who pursue a Part II course.

I am speaking for medical and veterinary students, but there may be small numbers of students in other subjects who for one reason or another wish to change Tripos, and may also find that as a consequence, they are not able to do a Part II course in their third year. Such students have always had the option of taking an extra year to complete an Honours Degree, and that option will continue. For those few students who are unwilling or unable for financial reasons to take this extra year, I would suggest that the University gives serious consideration to revising the regulations for the Ordinary B.A. Degree, to allow such students to graduate by this route.

In summary, I urge the University to accept this Report, because the educational principles on which it is based are correct. If we wish to maintain the standard of our Honours Degree, we must face up to the loss of flexibility which allows a small number of students to so graduate without a Part II. Further consideration needs to be given to what can be done for those students most affected, but such considerations should not delay the implementation of this Report.


Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I am a Senior Lecturer in Materials Science, and also currently Secretary of the Senior Tutors' Committee, but I wish to speak today in a personal capacity, not as representing the Committee per se.

Firstly, I wish to endorse the factual account given by the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, both in terms of the process that was clearly described and also in terms of the perceived reputational risk to the University. I think the latter is a very real issue and as for the former, we were all very grateful for the extensive discussion that led up to where we stand today.

The Senior Tutors' Committee did accept, with regret, the proposal, but only did so after a number of very full and frank discussions. In the beginning, there were a number of aspects that had to be addressed, and we have now reached a position where the acceptance, with regret, is, I think, a fair reflection of the views of most who have been involved. The decision was not taken lightly.

I wish to comment briefly on the comments by Professor Bowring. In particular, his comment that 'the Senior Tutors' Committee has been led up the garden path', and his request that the Senior Tutors' Committee look at the matter again, 'with less jaundiced eyes'. I will pass this on to the Senior Tutors' Committee, preferably with a full transcript of the comments made, but I should say, given the process by which we arrived at our position, I would personally be surprised - and I reiterate this is a personal view - if the Senior Tutors reached an outcome other than that which they have already shared.

I think also in Professor Bowring's remarks - unless I have misunderstood the remarks - he mentioned that you can take, in some subjects, a Part II without a Part I. Actually, I see that as a reassurance in terms of allowing students to be able to make changes and not in any sense a restriction. In terms of the Natural Sciences, and speaking as a Natural Scientist, we too have restrictions on what students can and can't do, but I think, as in the Humanities, we are always keen to find ways of ensuring that there can be appropriate progression through the three or four years that students are with us. As Professor Bowring has urged us, we will continue to look at any regulations that could possibly impede that to any degree. But I think that the Natural Sciences are a good example, and my impression - and I state this is an impression - is that most students do graduate with a Part II and not as a result of getting a number of Part Is: the figures provided in the Report reflect this.