Would you automatically get your degree if your varsity exploded?

'Passing by catastrophe' has been an urban legend doing the rounds among university students for years. We find out if there's any truth to it

09 December 2018 - 00:00
Have you heard the rumour that if some catastrophic event occurs at a varsity, the students directly affected by it are automatically awarded pass marks ?
Have you heard the rumour that if some catastrophic event occurs at a varsity, the students directly affected by it are automatically awarded pass marks ?
Image: 123RF/Sifotography

Picture this: You are knee-deep in a year-end exam and drowning fast. The chapter you decided to study was worth only 10 marks out of a total of 200. You've gnawed your fingernails down to the flesh and your brain can't stop thinking about the concept of panic. If only some bearded deity could deliver you from this tribulation …

All of a sudden a fuss kicks up behind you. That guy who looked so smug before the exam has keeled over clutching his chest, writhing through the last moments of his life. This is all very tragic but your brain can't help but remember a conversation you had with other students about a university policy that states that someone dying during an exam is so traumatic for everyone in the exam venue that the university grants an automatic pass mark to all students present.

Watching his last breaths, you think you might be about to pass by catastrophe …

"Passing by catastrophe" is an urban legend that states that if some catastrophic or tragic event occurs, the students directly affected by it are automatically awarded pass marks on the basis that there would then be no way to assess them fairly and they should not be penalised for the catastrophe.

So, for example, if someone dies during an exam, all the other students pass that exam. Or if the university is destroyed, all of its students are automatically awarded their degree. The legend has been popularised by social media and a general disposition to believe anything that involves studying less.

According to University of Cape Town spokesperson Elijah Moholola, "this is definitely an urban legend. No matter what happens, students have to earn their degree by passing the exams. If there were any circumstances preventing the university from offering the exams as scheduled, we would reschedule."

A spokesperson for Stellenbosch University, Martin Viljoen, seconded that sentiment: "The reality is that every situation will be considered on merit. If a student passes away before an exam or even in the exam venue, the university will consider requests by friends and classmates in this regard. The university will also offer counselling services to affected students. 

No matter what happens, students have to earn their degree by passing the exams
University of Cape Town spokesperson Elijah Moholola

"Influencing decisions could also be the size of the group, whether it is a big first-year class or a small post-graduate honours group, etcetera.

"It is highly unlikely, though, that a whole module will be cancelled and all students given a pass mark. This would put the university's academic integrity at risk."

In fact none of the universities we contacted have a policy of awarding automatic pass marks for whatever reason.

Not all university myths involve catastrophe, though. Wits University mythology holds that if a purple jacaranda flower falls on your head and you have not yet started studying, you are doomed.

In US sororities, all-female residences are not allowed to throw parties, and a common belief is that this is because large numbers of women living in a house is considered a brothel. The truth, according to the Huffington Post, is actually that sororities are not allowed to throw parties with alcohol because of underaged drinking and security fears. Those fears do not extend to male fraternities, whose parties have spawned an entire genre of film.

In general, then, it seems like any policy not officially communicated by the university is probably a product of some creative wishful thinking. So curb whatever arsonist tendency may have welled up inside of you after someone in the student centre told you that burning the university down would get you all degrees.

Turns out all it will do is land you in a drab room with bars on the windows while all the people who did study join Johann Rupert at Taboo for post-exam celebrations.

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