The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Brian Cox: abolish first-year exams

The professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester said he doesn’t care if his first-year students pass their exams


Brian Cox has stated that he wants to abolish first-year exams at the University of Manchester.

Cox, a professor of particle physics at the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said that professors “talk about it quite a lot”.

The University of Middlesex became the first university to abolish first-year exams in 2004, after first-year drop-out rates rose to 25 per cent.

“That would be something I would like to see,” Cox told The Mancunion in an interview.

Professor Brian Cox told The Mancunion that he supports the scrapping of exams “because I want students to come to university and be faced with an existential crisis, which is like: ‘why am I here?’ Because I’m not here to pass the exam, because there isn’t one.”

“So therefore, what am I doing? And of course, physics students are here to learn about nature — that’s actually what you’re here to do. You’re not here to pass the exam.

“I actually don’t care if my first-year students pass the exam or not.

“I mean, I know that it’s a mechanism by which if you really fail, you get thrown out. But I don’t really care about that. I care about people enjoying the act of learning and understanding, because that’s what you really need to do well.”

Some Russell group universities, including Birmingham and York, have already abolished exam assessments from entire courses. Hundreds of courses at newer universities have also abandoned examinations.

Earlier this academic year, Cambridge University announced they are seeking to scrap all written exams across all their courses.

Critics have warned the decline of exams in UK universities was putting degrees at risk of being “dumbed down”, and could result in an increase in academic plagiarism.

When asked if he was worried that abolishing exams would cause first-year students to slack off, Cox dismissed the fear.

“I don’t worry about that, because there might be a small minority, but… I came here to learn about stuff! You know, I didn’t come here to pass exams, I wanted to know about astronomy. So I think most people are like that, especially at a university like Manchester.

“There’s quite a selection effect operating, you’ve obviously done well, you are good enough to be here when you’re here. So there’s not a problem with your intellectual capability, so if there’s a problem with your motivation, that’s something that’s going to stay with you, actually. It’s going to cause you problems later in life.

“If you have this opportunity to come to a university like this, and be exposed to so many ideas and have so many opportunities, and you choose to spend it all in the bar, then I think that you’ve got some other problems.

“So, I think actually being given that responsibility and freedom is probably a more important gift than continuing along the line that you had at school. Which is: why are you at school? To pass the exam. Why are you at university? Not to pass the exam, actually — to learn about stuff.”

The professor clarified: “I’m not saying get a third.”

A second-year undergraduate at the University of Manchester expressed doubts to The Mancunion about the idea: “I think [exams] are a good practice so you know what’s coming in second year.”

Laura Swain, an English Literature undergraduate, agreed: “I do feel they perhaps help in giving you the experience of what to expect from an exam at university, so you are not completely oblivious when you have exams that actually count towards your degree in second year.”

This discussion comes after the Universities and Colleges Union’s (UCU) announcement on Tuesday, the 13th of March, that they intend to escalate USS strikes to potentially disrupt May exam season across Russell group universities in the UK. Brian Cox himself is participating in the strike.

Sally Hunt, the Union’s general secretary, said: “The strike action for this week remains on and we will now make detailed preparations for strikes over the assessment and exam period.

“We want urgent talks with the universities’ representatives to try and find a way to get this dispute resolved.”