Like many postgraduate students, exam time means one thing for Nick Barley; some extra cash for time spent making sure students get through their exams. Editor Elena Cresci caught up with Nick to find out all the gossip from the examination halls…

You might recognise Nick from today’s Quantum Movement exam… minus the pint mind you

This time of year is the worst! I’m probably not alone in saying that I detest exams, so I have  a hard time understanding why people would want to spend more time than necessary in an exam enviroment, and yet that’s exactly what Nick’s done every exam session since 2007.

We initially organised to meet in JCs, but as I walked through Singleton Park, I got a text saying “Can we make it Pub on the Pond instead? There will be lots of us!” True to his word, when I arrived at the Pub on the Pond, I was met with a table full of invigilators. “Normally we do this at the end of the session, but this week’s been pretty eventful so we felt we should do it a bit earlier!” I’m told. After a bit of banter concerning an appropriate collective noun for invigilators (“I’m sorry but none of these is as good as a parliament of owls!”), we got right into our discussion as Nick briefed me on the invigilator hierachy.

First of all, you’ve got the attendants, who sit outside collecting phones and making sure no one takes anything into the exam that they’re not allowed to. Next up are the assistants, who walk around the hall collecting the blue slips and fetching anything you may need during the exam, and at the very top of the food chain is the chief invigilator; the big daddy who makes the announcement at the beginning of the exam. Nick tells me this is his first year where he’s been assigned the role of chief invigilator in all his exams. This makes a big difference, as chief invigilators are paid £11.00 an hour, while assistants get £7.70. Even the attendants, on the lowest pay bracket of £6.60, earn a fair bit for their time, so it’s easy to see why, from a financial perspective, invigilating is a handy way to earn a bit of extra cash.

With Education Officer Luke James’ campaign to abolish Saturday exams kicking off next Friday, I asked Nick about his thoughts on this matter. A few of the invigilators present made it clear that they weren’t fans of Saturday exams either, even though the attendants get paid double for a Saturday exam, but Nick sees them as a necessary evil. “You’d have to have an extra week of exams otherwise. It’s either that or you have exams running up until 9 in the evening.”

So, do they ever get bored? Understandably, the answer to that question was yes, with English exams being singled out as some of the most boring. “There’s rarely ever a mistake on an English paper which will affect the whole exam”, Nick explained to me. “It’s not like you’re going to fail if ‘and’ is spelt wrong in the question!” He and a colleague told me that a Geology exam they invigilated this week was probably their most eventful in terms of things to do during the exam. “We had to fetch different rock samples for them”, said Nick’s colleague. “So, this meant that you had about 10 minutes at the start of the exam where everyone was writing the initial stuff, and then about 50 hands went up at once, and that’s when the running started!”

After the email this morning from the University stating that, in the first 4 days of the examination period, 8 cases of unfair practice had been reported, I had to ask whether Nick had pulled anyone up this week. “I haven’t written anybody up yet”, but oh boy, did he have some stories. “We’ve had it all, mobile phone, mp3 players, people talking…” One such story involved a regular culprit who had hidden notes up her skirt, while another tale, labelled as “legendary” among the invigilators, involved a girl caught listening to her notes on her iPod. Upon confronting the girl, she burst into tears, claming her motives for cheating were due to her baby dying three days before. Suspicious, her GP was called, and the claim was proved false.

Nick discussed with me some of the tactics an invigilator would employ when suspecting a student of cheating: “Generally what I’d do is, I’d spot it, the chief would check it out and you wouild try and get at least one other person to make sure something dodgy was going on before you go up to them. You do get people who just point blank refuse to do anything when you confront them, at which point you have to ring the department and get the lecturers to come down.” I couldn’t help but be reminded of police stings and Hot Fuzz. “It can be a bit like that – it doesn’t help that about half of the invigilators in the Sports Hall are ex-coppers!”

Eventful exam stories weren’t limited to cheaters caught red handed. When asked about his most memorable exams, Nick exclaimed “I’ve seen an ambulance called!” and went on to explain:

“Last year, this girl was majorly stressed out and about an hour into the exam she had a panic attack, so the chief had to literally carry her out to the ambulance. While that was happening one of the assistant invigilators came and told me that there was this guy with a Stanley knife in his pencil case, with the blade sticking out of the end.” Upon confronting the student, he was told “’Oh no no no, it’s to sharpen my pencil!’ I looked at this kid and just thought… are you kidding me? He had an eight metre measuring tape in there as well, I have no idea what he thought he was gonna do with that!”

This exam session has certainly been an eventful one, with the building work ongoing outside Fulton House and Keir Hardie. How have the invigilators felt about that? “We were told before the snow that it would be finished,” responded Nick, “but obviously that was before the snow came. We can understand [the delay]. If we want to make [the builders] quiet, we just ask them, and they generally don’t mind being asked to take a break for two hours! The problem is, if no students make it known that the noise is bothering them, we haven’t got any incentive to do anything. If they’re OK with it, we leave them to it, but people need to make it clear in the exams that they can’t concentrate.”

The best story Nick had was by far about a group of medical students in one exam. “They were all waiting to come into the room, and [one of the students] came up to me and said, ‘It’s our last exam today for six months,’ and this guy behind him walks in with three cases of Carlsberg! So he asks, ‘would it be OK if we each have a can on our desk, so that we can all open them at the same time at the end of the exam?’ We had to tell them that they couldn’t have them on the desk, but they could keep them on the floor, and wait until all the papers are in before opening them. As soon as we said ‘Thank you very much, you can leave’ – ‘WHAAAAAY’ as they all opened their cans! That was a lot of fun!”

So there’s the gossip for you students of Swansea. It may seem like a boring job, but it has its rewards! For those of you reading who still have exams to go, the best of luck from everyone here at Tne Siren. Don’t stress out, there’s only a week to go!