Academics say that the move, which would bring an end to more than 800 years of tradition, has come about because students rely too heavily on laptops in lectures, and are losing the ability to write by hand.
Cambridge University has now launched a consultation on the topic as part of its “digital education strategy”, having already piloted an exam typing scheme in the History and Classics faculties earlier this year.
Dr Sarah Pearsall, a senior lecturer at Cambridge’s History Faculty who was involved with the pilot earlier this year, said that handwriting is becoming a “lost art” among the current generation of students.
“As a faculty we have been concerned for years about the declining handwriting problem. There has definitely been a downward trend. It is difficult for both the students and the examiners as it is harder and harder to read these scripts.”
Dr Pearsall added an increasingly number of scripts are having to be transcribed centrally, meaning that students with illegible writing are forced to come back to their college during the summer holidays to read out their answers aloud out in the presence of two university administrators.
She said it is “extraordinarily commendable” that the University is considering reforms to its examination practises. But others criticised the move, voicing fear that the “handwritten word [could] become a matter of nostalgia”.
“Certainly with social media, iPads, and all the rest of it, people do clearly use keyboards much more than they would hand write,” she said, adding: “It’s vital that people continue to write by hand.”
She said that writing by hand “improves memory” and “equates to a higher rate of comprehension, understanding, and information retention”.
Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, said it is “inevitable” that universities will move to computers as handwriting deteriorates in coming years.
“Handwriting is very significantly in decline. We have to accept the reality – this is the way the vast majority of students have been brought up,” he said.
“The young people taking their Finals at Cambridge learnt how to express themselves at the beginning of this century – they type naturally. Handwriting has become an optional, not a necessary, part of education.”
“There simply isn’t the same time in the curriculum devoted to learning elegant, beautiful, handwriting. Life is so quick now, it’s as if everybody writes as if they are a doctor writing a prescription.”
Sir Seldon, a former headmaster of Wellington College, added, that handwriting is “not necessary for great thought, great English, or great intelligence”.
“Some of our finest wordsmiths in England today write using laptops, and I’m afraid that we have to fight to preserve what is really important, such as the use of great English, great sentence structure.”
There is also concern that schools could follow Cambridge’s example by moving away from handwriting.
Dr Jane Medwell, Associate Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, voiced fear that universities scrapping handwritten exams could prompt “downward curriculum pressure” on primary and secondary schools to follow suit.
“As part of this, a consultation is being conducted among students on whether computers should be allowed in exams,” the spokesperson said. “The consultation is on-going and will be used to inform future decision-making on the issue.”