Is that your final answer?

Why are more Oxford students postponing their Finals?

Jonny Thakkar

Topics Culture

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Every year, more and more Oxford students are electing to withdraw from their Finals examinations at the last minute. ‘There seems to me to have been a notable increase in the number of deferrals’, says Martin Ceadel, professor of politics at New College. ‘Once students know that deferral is possible, they start to contemplate it as a fall-back.’

The university permits examinees to pull out up until just before their last exam, and to resit the following year. What is surprising is that so many students take up the offer. Ceadel comments that ‘it can’t be because finals are getting harder, because in my view the opposite is true’.

It’s not as if it improves your chances of doing well. Those who pull out won’t have the benefit of a year’s teaching in the run-up to their exams, as they are not allowed to return to their colleges until the following summer term. Nor is it likely that they will be able to spend significant amounts of time learning by themselves – most will have to find temporary work to make ends meet; they won’t be near academic libraries; and they are likely to have difficulty motivating themselves. Unless you’re seriously ill, deferring doesn’t make sense as a tactical move.

There are two reasons that tend to be given for pulling out. First, that the stress is overwhelming. You lose weight. You can’t sleep. It’s debilitating. Even with only one more exam left, the workload can seem impossible when you’re in that state of mind. But it’s not hard to see that anyone resitting the following year is under even more pressure. Fail this time and you really are a failure.

The second reason proffered is that deferring is the only way of getting what you deserve in the most important exams of your life. Things are looking bad. You know the mistakes you made in the last exam. You’ve totted up your estimated mark so far, and you know you’re going to fail. These sentiments might be understandable, but again they’re hardly rational. You won’t make the same mistakes again; but then the questions will be different.

The key to understanding why so many defer lies not in optimising tactics, but in our degenerate culture. We live in an immature culture that cannot cope with the prospect of failure. A good cultural barometer is art. We don’t do tragedy any more; we don’t even do unhappy endings. That would be ‘depressing’, and so we’re left with ‘feel-good’ offerings.

We live in a feel-good culture in which the facts of life are no longer admitted. In life, people are judged in various ways, all the time. And one of the ways people are judged is their degree class. Finals examinations seem so, well, final, because they seem to mark people out as belonging to various categories. First class, upper second class, lower second class, third class, fail.

It seems that we can no longer accept that we will be categorised like this; we think the very finality of ‘Finals’ is unjust. Now, Finals examinations are indeed a blunt instrument with which to gauge a student’s ability. Like any exams, Finals can go right or wrong on the day. Luck plays a considerable role in determining your result. The right questions might not come up; you might be feeling ill; the examiner might not like your handwriting.

But your judges know that. This isn’t a final judgment at all. While it may be more difficult to get a job with a 2:2 from Oxford, it is far from impossible. In most careers, your degree class is irrelevant after a couple of years’ experience – in other words, you can do something about it. Thinking of Finals as final amounts to a denial of agency, as if we’re unable to recover from any setback or knock.

By allowing students to defer without having to cite serious illness, the university encourages that mentality. It’s as if it is saying: ‘Is that your final answer?’

It is our immature culture, which pictures people as free-floating individuals who aren’t judged or categorised by anyone, that makes Finals seem final. It is understandable for students to be swept up in that culture at times of stress. It’s up to the university to offer them some leadership by denying them an escape route.

Jonny Thakkar studied politics, philosophy and economics at New College, Oxford.

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