If enough students opt out of class lists, the unofficial intercollegiate ranking table may face difficultiesLouis Ashworth

Cambridge’s unofficial college league table will continue to be valid even though students may soon have a simple option to opt out of sharing their exam results, its creator has said.

On Tuesday, Varsity reported that the University Council had approved proposals which would offer students a simplified opt-out from class lists of exam results. The change potentially threatens the future of the Tompkins Table, which ranks colleges by their tripos results, and is reliant upon enough exam results being made public to ensure its findings are valid.

Class Lists The story so far

The public display of Class Lists, in which Cambridge students’ exam grades are posted outside Senate House, has been a point of contention for several years. It was the subject of the campaign ‘Our Grade, Our Choice’, which in 2015 gathered over 1,200 signatures for a petition calling on the University to introduce an easier opt-out system.

That campaigning issue was picked up by CUSU, and in late 2015, a poorly-attended meeting of CUSU Council saw opposition of the Lists enshrined in student union policy. Abolishing the lists became a key lobbying focus of CUSU President Priscilla Mensah. Around the same time, the University was launching its own review, seeking to address the issue of “the future of Class Lists”.

In April 2016, Varsity revealed that the review – led by Professor Graham Virgo, the pro-vice-chancellor for education – had been completed, and that the General Board of the Faculties had recommended that the Lists be abolished, a recommendation which was subsequently passed by the University Council. The review called publication of the Lists “undesirable, unnecessary, and without benefit to the proper business of the collegiate University”. Documentation showed Mensah had told the review that students backed abolition, based on the CUSU Council vote. A Grace was published in July which, if left unopposed, would have meant the end of the lists.

At that point, however, there was a reversal. Members of Regent House – Cambridge’s sovereign governing body of academics and senior staff – blocked the Grace, triggering a vote on whether it should pass. Additionally, a student campaign, ‘Save the Class List’, had gathered enough signatures to force CUSU to hold a referendum on its own policy.

In November 2016, students voted in a referendum to change CUSU’s policy, reversing its position almost a year after it had first been set, to instead campaign for the lists to be maintained. In December, Regent House voted, rejecting the Grace. With the Lists’ fortunes totally flipped, the University began a new review into their future, and the possibility of a simplified opt-out.

Those discussions were derailed, however, by news of incoming EU data protection legislation, which University administrators worried could make publishing the lists illegal. Since then, things have been quiet as the University seeks legal advice on if it can even proceed in publishing the lists, let alone in creating a simplified opt-out. On Tuesday, Varsity revealed that the University Council is proposing to implement a simple opt-out process.

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Peter Tompkins, who has compiled the Tompkins Table since 1981, said he “would not personally expect a deluge of students to wish to absent their names from the results list”.


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The Tompkins Table, which Trinity College has topped for the past seven years, is compiled independently of the University. It has been published in Varsity for the past two years, having previously appeared in The Independent. The University also produces its own ranking, called the Baxter Table, which the colleges and faculties use internally to assess performance.

In its initial proposal, revealed in April 2016, which called for abolition of the class lists, the University said the Tompkins Table “would cease to be published” if publication ceased. In the consultation which led to that recommendation, it was noted that several colleges “would not object to [the Tompkins table] disappearing”.

Peter Tompkins, a former Trinity Mathematician, has compiled the table since 1981Peter Tompkins/Twitter

That aligned with the wishes of several campaigners, who said that the rankings perpetuated a negative competitive atmosphere between colleges. They included former CUSU president Priscilla Mensah, who welcomed the initial proposal for abolition as an opportunity to “eradicate the negative culture created by league tables (and public class lists) in Cambridge”. In Michaelmas 2015, CUSU adopted policy opposing both class lists and the Tompkins Table.

CUSU’s anti-class lists policy was dramatically overturned in a student referendum last November, but its anti-Tompkins Table policy still technically stands. With class lists set to continue, however, there is no practical way to stop Tompkins producing a ranking except large-scale opt-outs.

They are a possibility: in the referendum last year, 2,106 students voted to abolish the lists. If a significant proportion of those decided to opt-out, the validity of the ranking could be questioned. Under the current system, where students have to go through a lengthy approvals process to have their names taken off the printed lists, opt-out figures have never been high enough: in 2016, 39 names were omitted from the Senate House lists; this rose to 86 names in 2017.


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The winners and losers of the class lists saga

There is also the possibility that a concentrated boycott within a single college could invalidate its results within the Tompkins Table, and damage the overall usefulness of the ranking. Tompkins said he did not “expect any college to particularly encourage their members to remove their names”, but the possibility does make the rankings vulnerable to concentrated student action.

Professor Graham Virgo, the pro-vice-chancellor for education, said the new opt-out system, if it is approved by Regent House, “will be available for the main examination period” – meaning Tompkins’ confidence could be put to the test in the coming months.

● Separately, the proposed changes to class list publication were welcomed yesterday by Save The Class List, the student group which led the campaign to overturn CUSU’s policy against the lists. “We are delighted that the class lists are being retained with an easy opt out. This is the result we campaigned for,” its founders said.