155 Engineering exams were failed in the last ten yearsLouis Ashworth

For many Cambridge students, failure is a foreign concept. Fortunately, for most, the prospect will remain distant throughout their University career, as between the academic years of 2006-07 to 2016-17, just 891 failed examination results were recorded, marking only a tiny fraction of students entered for examination at the University during this period.

Although student numbers are approximately equal, the sciences saw a significantly greater number of failures, 753, than the arts, humanities and social sciences, which saw just 138.

Excluding Medicine, in which most of the 332 failures came about in the final clinical examinations, rather than University administered Tripos exams, Engineering was the subject with the greatest total number of failures­­­­­­, at 155, followed closely by Natural Sciences, with 134.

Engineering is a four-year course, for which the second greatest number of students – 334 – were accepted in 2017. While Natural Sciences’ student numbers dwarf all other subjects, with 629 students accepted in the 2017 admissions cycle, the failure rates remain disproportionately large even when accounting for these factors.

Asked about the relatively high number of failures in her subject, Dr Claire Barlow, deputy head of the Cambridge Engineering Department, said that the “very analytical” Cambridge Engineering course “doesn’t suit everyone” and acknowledged that a “small proportion of students do fail - typically below 1%, and most commonly in the first year”. However, she explained that “such students typically start again at other universities and do very well indeed”.

English, the second largest of the arts and humanities according to the 2017 admissions statistics, claimed a comparatively tiny number of failures, with just four across the 11-year period. Meanwhile Law, whose student numbers are only slightly greater than English, saw the most failures of any arts or humanities subject, with 21 failures, nine of which occurred in the first year of study. History followed close behind, with 20 failures, of which 16 took place in preliminary examinations.

Disparities are seen, too, between University years, with finalists significantly less likely to fail than those at the beginning of their degrees. The exception to this was in Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, where the number of failing students increased in their clinical exams, sat at the end of their final three years. Unlike the majority of Tripos examinations, it is possible to resit these.

Not a single student failed first year Land Economy or Geography – in fact, only one student failed any part of the geography tripos across the entire 11-year period, the least of any subject offered at the University, despite the fact that Geography, which accepted 90 students in 2017, is far from the smallest subject in terms of enrolment.

Professor Ash Amin, head of the Geography department, said that the “very robust teaching administration and procedures, including excellent feedback and consultation with students through students reps and the Staff Student Committee” of the Geography department “helps us pick up on any problems early on”. Amin said that by allowing specialisation in second and third year, they students were able “to work in areas suited to their talents and interests”; while the “relatively small” nature of their department means they are able “to spot anyone in difficulty early on”.


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The standard University response to examination failure is to prevent a student from continuing with their course, excluding preliminary examinations, in which failure does not “debar you from being a candidate for any subsequent Tripos examination”. Circumstances are, however, taken into account, with allowances made for those experiencing hardship.

Asked about responses to failure, Dr Juliet Foster, senior tutor at Murray Edwards College, affirmed that incidents of exam failure are treated “on a case-by-case basis”, including discussion of the situation with the student and consideration of “any medical or tutorial issues”. This response was echoed by Richard Partington, senior tutor at Churchill College, who explained that the college would make an appeal to the Applications Committee if it is clear that there are “significant extenuating circumstances”, adding that this is “usually on the basis of illness but sometimes through other, grave cause”.

Discussing the formal process following exam failure, Newnham College’s senior tutor, Professor Liba Taub, said that they take each case as it comes, explaining that “a group of senior members of the college would hear from you and your director of studies, look at your supervision reports, hear from your tutor and consider extenuating circumstances”.

Appeals usually serve to allow a student to continue to the next stage of their degree or, if they are a finalist, to be deemed “Declared to have Deserved Honours” (DDH), allowing them to graduate with an honours degree. If this is deemed inappropriate by the University, a student may be awarded an Ordinary Degree, which also allows them to graduate without honours.

Senior tutors were keen to emphasise that failure, though it is a serious matter, is extremely rare, a message which is indeed supported by the data.

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