Covering your bits the University way

Still no new Bad Science from Dr Aust – blame family life and office moves. Instead I am having a minor muse on the bureaucratic minutiae of life in the University sector.

In Universities these days, like in most of the public sector, we seem to have an ever-increasing number of bureaucratic rules.

One rule that has appeared in the last few years at Dr Aust’s University is that all our exam papers now have to have a “cover page” on which no actual exam questions appear. This means that short exam papers (“Do two of the following five essay questions”), which were previously a single page, are now two pages. Bad news for trees somewhere.

As well as having the new rules, we also have central offices and their bureaucracies to enforce them. Nowadays I hand in my exam papers to the University Office of the Central Committee for Student Processing. They will make a fuss, and try to refuse to take the paper from me, if I have broken the “blank cover page” rule.

The dialogue when I fell foul of this rule a couple of years ago went something like this:


“I’m sorry, you’ll have to take this paper back. It doesn’t have a cover sheet, which is the rule”

“Well, I didn’t know about the rule, and I don’t have time to re-do the front of the paper. This is the last day you are open before Christmas, and the exam is in four weeks. Does it really matter that much?”

“Oh yes, there has to be a cover sheet. It’s the rule.”

“But why? We never used to have them, and students still sat exams”

“Well, without a cover sheet the students will be able to read the questions BEFORE they start the official exam time, as soon as the papers are put on their desk”.

“But… …they will only be able to read the questions on the front page, which in this case is three multiple choice questions out of ninety on the whole exam. And we can tell the invigilators handing out the papers to put them on the students’ desks face down. That is what we used to do back when the academics ran the exams themselves.”

“Yes, but if SOME of the student turn their papers over those students will be gaining an advantage”

“What, an extra minute at most to try and read three questions? Furtively? If they turn the paper over after they are specifically told not to?”

(stubbornly)   “Well, that’s the rule”

(rolling eyes) “(unprintable)”


Now, I would have said this was bureaucracy gone a little bit mad – though I will admit that the following year I dutifully put a blank cover sheet at the front of my exam. Mainly to save myself the same conversation over again, and help keep my blood pressure under control.

However – on re-consideration, I think I have done the University Office of the Central Committee a disservice. The point of telling you this story now was to note that in this particular bit of bureaucratic box-ticking – the strategic cover sheet index – UK Universities are proudly way ahead of the Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorist Branch.


So score one for the Heroes of Labour of the Office of the Central Committee for Student Processing.

If only The Met – and apparently various branches of government – had administrative procedural rule-book writers with the same sweeping vision.


3 Responses to “Covering your bits the University way”

  1. Svetlana Says:

    Oh, if they had such sweeping vision, Britain would be socialistic state :)
    One of most favourite films of people in our country was (and is!) “The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed” (“Mesto vstrechi izmenit nelzya”):

    It is film about soviet militia. There is one scene in this film. Main hero of film – Captain Zheglov – teaches (very sternly!) his colleague Sharapov that any important document must lie on the table FACEDOWN (i.e. by such way that important information wouldn’t be seen by anyone). And this “art-ideological” processing was so strong that even now I instinctively close any document (worse – any piece of paper with any writings! :) ) from other people.

  2. jdc325 Says:

    Re the Met Anti-Terrorist Branch: Given the number of politicians who have been caught out in this manner, one would have hoped that others might be more careful. Particularly when the information is sensitive.

  3. draust Says:

    Agreed, but it’s one of those “systemic” things – you can’t really be sure that every person with a confidential paper going into a briefing will always remember, especially those who see lots of confidential papers. And it is pretty much a given that they will always be photographed on their way into the briefings. So you would expect that a sensible administrative measure would be to have a Civil-Service wide policy that you should put a content-blank cover page on every “highly sensitive” document, which would them greatly decrease the number of times the need to REMEMBER to “cover up” would actually arise.

    It is telling that this rather basic insight seems to have escaped the assembled top Oxbridge brains of the Home Civil Service – or should one say “the Whitehall hive mind” – as well as the Met. Hence the irony of Universities insisting on this for fairly trivial things, while the Great and the Good – and their army of assorted PAs, special advisers, private secretaries and gofors – can’t figure it out for stuff where it actually matters.

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