Class lists displayed outside the Senate House, a tradition that has now been discontinuedLOUIS ASHWORTH

In this head-to-head piece, Bella Cross and Issac Fung debate the practice of releasing ordered rankings to students after the end-of-year examinations.

Against ranking

“There are many aspects of the “tradition” of Cambridge life that do very little to enhance the quality of our education, and serve only as exercises of our own ego. The obsession with the ranking system exemplifies this. I have two major concerns with the ranking system: it detracts from educational enrichment by turning our degrees into nothing more than an individualistic competition, and it reinforces the classed, gendered and racialized attainment gap in the university.

“Exams aren’t an expression of our progress or self-development”

For most subjects, these rankings emerge from a few exams performed in a high-stress environment in which a multitude of factors could impact your capacity to produce your “best” work. Should you have a disability, illness or personal issue — despite mitigations being in place — exams are not by any means an even playing field or the best way to demonstrate knowledge and understanding. Although there is some correlation between “work ethic” and results, often with such a competitive form of examination, students are forced to tune their work and ideas to suit the tastes of the faculty. Exams aren’t an expression of our progress or self-development, and by ranking students on their results, they are turned into a nasty and public competition. This competition often leads to an attempt to reduce ourselves to our most robotic form — hardly a healthy attitude to life — and immense psychological pressure to achieve perfection in a few hours of exams. We know that self-doubt and imposter syndrome, and generally a mental health crisis, are endemic in Cambridge, and the competition that the ranking system produces is directly responsible for part of this.

Furthermore, as we know, whilst working class, state school, BAME students and students of marginalised genders (although the university uses a binary system to monitor this still) remain underrepresented in intake across the university, they are also underrepresented in the highest tiers of grades within the ranking system. To suggest, therefore, that these rankings are an accurate representation of the genuine academic capabilities of students is to deny these students of their intelligence and hard work. Particularly for humanities students at an undergraduate level, this system rewards students who are able to emulate a very specific writing style, rather than for expressing creativity in thought. The ranking system therefore fundamentally reproduces and reinforces the gendered, racialized and classed educational hierarchies that exist throughout our educational journeys, and packages them as a supposedly just outcome of our time at university.

Although getting rid of the ranking system would mean we would no longer see tripos ranks worn as a badge of honour on LinkedIn (a devastating loss, I know), removing this system and re-evaluating what is valued as ‘educational excellence’ within this university would not only improve the wellbeing of all students, but also genuinely improve the quality of work and create a more positive and equal learning environment for all students.” -Bella Cross

For ranking

“Given the current zeitgeist, I am aware my support of the ranking system is unpopular. Over the years, Cambridge students’ appetite for open academic competition has steadily diminished. As early as 2016, CUSU criticised class-lists for fostering a “culture of rivalry”. Half the student body in 2018-19 opted out of having their results displayed. And as recently as last year, the University discontinued the publication of class-lists for public consumption. This has culminated in calls to do away with the ranking system altogether. Although I understand such appeals come from the desire to ease academic pressures on students, I believe such a course of action is deeply misguided.

“If Cambridge students refuse to compete, they will cease to be competitive”

There are two reasons why we should keep the ranking system. First, the ranking system is useful, especially when grade inflation is at an all-time high. According to the Office for Students, the proportion of Firsts and 2.1s awarded across the country has increased from 67% in 2010-11 to 84.4% in 2020-21. This phenomenon becomes even more pronounced in Cambridge: 94.7% of graduates in 2020-21 achieved at least a 2.1, and the proportion of graduates with Firsts increased from 26% (2010-11) to 47.8% (2020-21).

Consequently, without a ranking system, it will become increasingly difficult to identify high-fliers. This will be a problem for employers, who will be left in the dark about what each degree class signifies. And it would also be unfair to those who worked hard to achieve high 2.1s, as they will no longer have an academic benchmark to distinguish themselves from the rest of the student population. By contrast, a system which directly compares each individual’s academic achievements against their peers provides a clear indication of both relative and absolute excellence. It is inflation-proof and survives the test of time.

Second, the ranking system should be kept as a matter of principle: it rewards excellence and lets people know where they stand. Like any measure of worth, the ranking system is imperfect: it cannot tell us how moral or how likeable a person is. But what it can do is provide a useful approximation of someone’s academic aptitude and work ethic, adjusted for each cohort. And it is only fair that every student has the right to know exactly how well they did in relation to their peers.


Mountain View

May Ball or bust?

On a final note: we should not be afraid of competition. It is what spurs students on to ever greater heights; it is the lifeblood of achievement. It would not do for us to say ’we have all achieved excellence’ and pat ourselves on the back. Indeed, the very concept of ‘distinction’ implies the need to distinguish between the achievements of each individual. As such, an aversion to competition is corrosive to standards. To put it starkly: if Cambridge students refuse to compete, they will cease to be competitive. It would be a great pity if Cambridge lost its lustre, and if its students ended up being overtaken by ambitious and clear-eyed graduates from universities in Asia and America. I hope that day never comes.” - Issac Fung