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Higher education postcard: examinations

Today’s card from Hugh Jones’ postbag may bring you out in a cold sweat
This article is more than 1 year old

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

Greetings from Oxford!

This card shows the Examination Schools, which for those of us not fluent in Oxbridge, is simply the name for the building where examinations are sat. It was completed in 1886, and houses invigilated exams for the University’s students, as well as lectures and conferences, and so on.

Most of you reading this will have sat an examination at some point, perhaps decades ago, perhaps more recently. As a trial to be endured, they have existed since the late 500s, when the imperial examinations were established in China as a means of selecting people for government office. (It’s worth taking time to read about these: I recommend China’s Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China by Ichisada Miyazaki. You will learn much.)

But we’re focusing more on the UK. The medieval universities had forms of assessment, based upon oral examinations. These have their descendants in the viva voce for research degrees, which is still a functioning assessment. (In some continental universities, the defence of a thesis has become a more ceremonial occasion, with the actual assessment taking place beforehand by an examination committee.) Oral examinations are much less common for taught degrees.

The first evidence of a written examination in UK universities was from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1702. Their use as a technique was clearly growing in importance by the nineteenth century – the written examination was a foundation stone of the University of London (which was established in 1836 as an examining and degree awarding body for students of its colleges); and the construction of the Examination Schools at Oxford indicates that the logistical problems of written examinations were recognised there too.

Oxford University examinations require a student to wear a particular costume. Yes, you did read that correctly.

Sub fusc (from the Latin for dark brown) comprises:

1. one of:

    • dark suit with dark socks, or
    • dark skirt with black tights or stockings, or
    •  dark trousers with dark socks or dark hosiery

Socks, tights and stockings must be worn and must cover the ankle entirely. There should be no gap between the bottom of the trouser leg or skirt and the top of the socks or stockings.

2. dark jacket, if required – worn underneath the gown

3. black shoes

4. plain white collared shirt or blouse with sleeves

5. white bow tie, black bow tie, black full-length tie, or black ribbon.

In addition candidates must wear the right academic gown (commoners, scholars or advanced) and a mortar board.

For those of us not educated at Oxbridge, this is a window into a curious world, with rules and relics of the past. One can speculate on the extent to which this serves to exclude those who did not suffer these particular rituals.

A story is told about Oxford examinations, in the early years of the twentieth century, that a candidate, having spent time perusing the University’s medieval rules and bylaws, demanded to be supplied with beer at the examinations, in line with a long-forgotten statute. The invigilators checked and found the rule still to be in force, and duly supplied the beer. The examination board then did its own checking, and failed the student because he was not wearing a sword, required by some equally forgotten but still valid medieval rule. This is probably not true.

Examinations still remain a part of many students’ experience of university, although assessment practice has developed to encompass many different forms. A timed, invigilated, examination may now be a relatively minor part of the assessment for a degree. But the rituals – even without sub fusc and swords – leave their scars on us all.

You must now put your pen down and stop writing.

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