The MMLL department has chosen to complicate the education of students whose learning has been disrupted since GCSEsCmglee via wikimedia commons

This week, Varsity reported on the student backlash against the decision taken by the MMLL faculty to alter the format of exams. In an open letter, students studying MMLL, HML and AMES “expressed serious concerns” about the faculty’s decision to change the format of all exams going forward. Instead of having tranche-based take-home assessments, all papers examined under the highly capable jurisdiction of the MMLL faculty will consist of a piece of untimed coursework and two open book three-hour exams completed online. Students’ “serious concerns” about the impact on their academic performance are well founded, but this decision serves as a case-study of a negligent attitude towards students as the faculty chose a sudden shift rather than a transitional approach.

“The faculty’s policy is not only unfair, it is bad policy implementation”

Having had the pleasure of experiencing exam season in close proximity to multiple MMLLers, one thing is undeniably clear: the tranche system is very weird. For those less familiar, the tranche system gave students a window of several days to complete three essays. You’ll rarely meet two language students with the same timetable in exam season, as the tranches adjust according to the in-person grammar exams that each individual student has. Assessments generally take two forms, exams or coursework; a multiple day assessment overcomes this binary in a strange and dysfunctional way. It leads to a lot of highly stressed language students who can never truly rest in Easter as they are pretty much permanently ‘in an exam’. The endless editing of almost a week’s worth of thoughts into 1,250 words can, I imagine, result in highly over-polished and overstuffed essays which are difficult to compare cross-candidate. Of course, officially students are meant to complete these exams in timed conditions at any point over several days, but I challenge you to find a student who adheres to this guidance.

From this perspective the policy change makes sense. The tranche system is not working. Let’s change it. The faculty consulted the student body and came up with a new and improved format. In their open letter, students complained about the consultation process for being “limited” and “unfeasible” for students in different time zones to participate in. In fairness to the faculty, we as students have a tendency to exhibit fury towards departmental decisions after displaying total apathy to the decision-making process. This may have been the case here. However, regardless of whether the consultation process was fair or not, the faculty should have taken the glaringly obvious route of altering the exam format for incoming students, rather than suddenly changing the format students have been exposed to for the first two years of their degree.

“Their conclusion should come as a disappointment to all of us”

Let’s look at this argument nationally. Even Michael Gove, in his infinite wisdom, did not introduce the 9-1 GCSE reform overnight. Why? Because it would have been unfair for the students in Year 10 who had been rehearsing for one form of exam to ask them to perform in a different format. It would be like asking a clarinet player if they would mind, for their Royal Albert Hall debut, switching to play their melody on the saxophone because “well, they are basically the same, and musical rigour is oh so very important to our institution.” Gove’s reforms were far more aesthetic than the root and branch reforms proposed by the MMLL faculty. The faculty’s policy is not only unfair, it is bad policy implementation.


Mountain View

Glad to be History’s ‘guinea pig’

It would be quite easy, as a non-MMLLers, to take the view, “boohoo, the languages students have to sit their finals in a different format. Poor them, I hope they can come to terms with it over the course of their year abroad on the beaches of Barcelona,” particularly when one considers the assessment demands of some STEM departments (as always, thoughts and prayers with second year medics). But the MMLL faculty’s decision is a case-study in the treatment of undergraduate students, and their conclusion should come as a disappointment to all of us. The faculty faced a problem in the form of an ineffective COVID exam system that needed to be scrapped. In resolving this, they were at a crossroads. Either change the exam format for incoming students and phase the tranche system out, or abruptly change it for all students, judging finalists on a format which many have not practised (due to A-Level disruption in COVID) since GCSEs.

The former path would have been better policy and in line with other faculties, such as HSPS which (although it is currently unconfirmed) appears to be going down this route. Instead, the MMLL faculty took the road less travelled, choosing to further complicate the education of one of the most disrupted cohorts of students since the Second World War. It’s a case study in the institutional thoughtlessness towards undergraduates which pervades Cambridge. The faculty had the choice to work for or against its students. It chose against… and we should all be disheartened by that choice.