Emblematic of Cambridge traditions, are Class Lists going to become history?

For the anti-abolitionists among the student body and the University staff, one of the central issues in this debate is by whom Class Lists’ fate should be determined. Both Save The Class List and academics who spoke to Varsity expressed their concern that relevant decisions had not been made democratically.

According to Save The Class List, it was wrong for CUSU to alter its stance on the issue without first consulting the students whom it represents. It has criticised CUSU directly for not consulting students on the issue, noting that the Student Union did conduct a consultation on the issue in 2008 but failed to do so before altering its stance last year. A Save The Class Lists spokesperson told Varsity that CUSU Council had failed even to inform students properly that it was debating the issue, sending out invitations at the last minute and not giving JCR reps sufficient time to consult their members.

Many academics who called for a vote in Regent House were also concerned that, without a vote, the proposal could have no legitimacy. Professor David Abulafia condemned the way in which the Grace had been “handed down” to Regent House, which he believes violates the principle that the University is a self-governing entity. Professor David Tong said that he was concerned that there had not been a sufficiently broad consultation on the issue, and that students’ voices should be heard.

However, their concern is not only with the principles of democracy and self-determination, but also with the practical implications of the policy. Professor Abulafia argues that a vote will allow teaching fellows to refine what is currently an imperfectly-phrased proposal which he claims was written by “people who obviously don’t understand how teaching is arranged in and across colleges nowadays.” In the same vein, Save The Class List has argued that the complete abolition of the lists could have unforeseen ramifications for students with mental health issues.

It might not be excessively cynical to suggest that democracy is also a good tactic for the student anti-abolitionists. As the government has discovered over the last few years, it is very difficult to put up a valid argument against referenda and the principle of diffusing decision-making power. Save The Class Lists also believes that it has significant popular support for its platform of “reform not abolition”, and can win a referendum.

The three potential outcomes of the debate are: a complete abolition of Class Lists; an ‘enhanced opt-out’ option, under which students could choose not to have their results displayed without being obliged to provide a reason for their preference; and the status quo, that is, results will continue to be displayed publicly.

Only a small number of current students have so far made their views known on this topic: the 1,300 who signed the original petition, and the 700 who put their names to the petition for a referendum. The most detailed analysis of student opinion on the issue is a 2008 CUSU consultation which found that 66 per cent of students ‘liked the tradition of Class Lists’, but 56 per cent preferred to receive their results privately. Although this is heavily out-of-date, it perhaps suggests that there will be support among students for some middle way between abolition and the status quo.

Perhaps sensing this, Save The Class List has made reform to the Class Lists’ opt-out system the centrepiece of its campaign. However, even if they can persuade CUSU to alter its stance, it seems unlikely that the University itself will endorse the proposal. The idea of an enhanced opt-out system has not yet been entertained by any decision-making body within the University, and there is apparently little enthusiasm for their proposal: the November circular asked colleges and faculties whether they would prefer “greater flexibility for individual students to opt out” to outright abolition or the maintenance of the status quo, and not a single respondent supported the option. What is more, it is thought that the likely referendum question will be a simple, ‘Do you support the proposed abolition of Class Lists?’, which would leave no room for Save The Class List’s middle-way proposal. Varsity asked Save The Class List how it intended to achieve its goal and was told that an enhanced opt-out would be “easier to administer for the University”, but the group could not comment at the time on the details of the internal consultation.

Some observers have claimed that the abolition of Class Lists is symptomatic of a weakening of Cambridge’s academic rigour. Kwasi Kwarteng, MP for Spelthorne, has said that “If modern students can’t get through what people have gone through for centuries, I’m a bit worried about the standards of Cambridge and the sort of people they are letting in.” Dr Roger Sewell of Trinity College was blunter in his assessment: in a letter to the Vice-Chancellor, he wrote that the abolition of Class Lists would be “a victory for mediocrity”.

Class Lists’ opponents have repudiated this charge. In a blog for the Times Higher Education in April, then-CUSU president Priscilla Mensah wrote: “The implication that “modern” students are just getting softer is without basis. In the age of smartphones and a culture of online sharing, a student’s right to privacy is ever more vulnerable and requires safeguarding if we are to uphold genuine student choice and autonomy... a student who may have failed due to circumstances beyond their control can have themselves tagged in a photo of the list on Facebook, with a witty caption for extra enjoyment.”