Was the RAE Exam Easier than Today’s Exams?

From 2004, UK amateur radio licences are in 3-tiers: Foundation, Intermediate and Full. Before then, it was the RAE (Radio Amateurs’ Examination). In response to recent online conversations, this page takes a quick look at the RAE and how it compares to the 2019 syllabus.

What was the RAE Exam?

From 1979 to 2003, this was a multiple-choice test (before then, it was a written exam. Until 1998, the paper was in two parts: Part 1 (Licencing conditions, interference, EMC), and Part 2 (procedures and theory). Candidates took both papers in a single sitting. If they failed one of the two papers, they wouldn’t need to take the other paper again. Between 1998 and 2002, the two papers were merged into a single paper.

The one-paper system ran from 1998 to 2003, when City & Guilds ceased running the RAE, leading to RSGB introducing Foundation, Intermediate & Full.

What was covered at RAE?

We looked at the last RAE Exam, the December 2003 RAE. and compared it to today’s syllabus:

  • 52% of the RAE exam would be covered off in today’s Foundation
  • 34% would today be classed as Intermediate
  • 14%, mostly electronics theory, would fall under “Full”
RAE Exam Composition
RAE Exam – Content Breakdown based on 2020 Syllabus

 

Was the RAE easier than today’s exams?

From reviewing several RAE papers, yes, it would appear so – as demonstrated in the following table:

RAE (2003) vs Full (2020) Comparison Table
RAE (2003) vs Full (2020) Comparison Table

Based on our review of the December 2003 RAE, over half of the RAE questions were equivalent to today’s Foundation. Only 14% of questions fell into the “Full” category, meaning that under RAE, 11 Full questions were asked, compared to 60 today.

Number of questions - RAE vs. 3-tier
Number of questions – RAE vs. 3-tier

Back under RAE, several topics weren’t covered, including frequency synthesis, semiconductors, Software-defined Radios, Digital Voice, Digital Data, A-to-D conversion, Direct digital synthesis, Fourier transform, Data modes, Digital TV EMC, and other topics. Other sections, such as Safety, EMC and Operating Procedures were smaller under RAE, and there were no practicals.

From our article Getting a Full Amateur Radio Licence – Then and Now, by every other measurable criterion, getting a Full licence today is much harder.

  2003 RAE 7650 Exam 2020 Three-tier System
Number of exams 1 3
Exam Fee £29.50 £97.50
Exam Time 2 hours and 15 minutes 4 hours 30 minutes (excluding practicals)
Questions 80 130
Practicals None
Syllabus 8 sections  10 sections. 

 

What of the RAE written exam?

One commenter below has referred us to his exam in 1973. We went back to the 1973 RAE paper to see how it compares to today’s exams.

Before 1979, the RAE was a single-paper eight-question written exam. It was almost entirely focussed on electronics and transmitter construction, as opposed to the broader syllabus introduced back in the 80s. This perhaps reflects that before the 80s, amateurs made their own homebrew transmitters, hence the focus on circuit design.

From reviewing the paper, you can immediately see that there were no questions on band plans, EMC, antennas, safety or operating procedures, and almost nothing on licensing – all topics that are mandatory today, even at Foundation! Of course, there were no practicals back then, and the syllabus has grown significantly since the 1970s. (A separate Morse test was required for a Full Class A – without that, you’d get a Class B)

The topics covered back in the 1970s would compare to sections 2 and 3 of today’s syllabus, which equates to just over 31% what’s asked currently for a Full licence. Most of the topics covered in this exam would be considered Intermediate-level today. As most radio amateurs no longer design and construct transistor or valve transmitters, it could be argued that this exam was for a different era in amateur radio’s history.

For those keen to check, here is a breakdown of the 1973 RAE paper:

Q. 1 Two questions: How to fill in a log, and the Supervision clause. This was 15% of the exam, and today would be two marks at Foundation (syllabus 1B1 and 7A5)
Q. 2 VFO Stability – This is Intermediate-level (2I5)
Q. 3 VFO Tuning Coils & Screening – VFOs and the basics of coils are Intermediate (2I5, 2D4)
Q. 4 Phase and Impedance. 3 of the 4 items are Intermediate (2E2 and 2E3), with one Full (2E6)
Q. 5 Transmitter box diagram. This would be equivalent to Intermediate box diagram in Table 3b today. Some sub-questions are Intermediate (buffer amp 3C2, filter 3G2), and some full (amplifier class 2I4)
Q. 6 Basics of a transistor or valve amplifier? That’s Intermediate 2I3 and 2I4. Valves are now obsolete.
Q. 7 Superhet. Some of this is Intermediate-level (3I) and some is Full-level (3I)
Q. 8 Fading. That’s all Intermediate (5B3)
Q. 9 Wavemeters are now out-of-scope. Closest would be checking for spurious emissions and harmonics (Intermediate 6D3)
Q. 10 Balanced vs Unbalanced feeder and impedance – That’s Foundation (4A1 and 4C5)

Given that candidates could pick their topics on the written test, it seems that a pass could be achieved on the old RAE written exam with the knowledge taught in just three of the ten sections of today’s Intermediate syllabus!

 

RAE 2003 Exam breakdown

If you’d like to check for yourself, here’s how we broke down the questions from the December 2003 RAE

RAE Question Section Foundation Syllabus Intermediate Syllabus Full Syllabus
1 Licensing 7A5    
2 Licensing 1G1    
3 Licensing Obs    
4 Licensing 1A2    
5 Licensing 4C3    
6 Licensing 1A1    
7 Licensing 7A5    
8 Licensing 1A2    
9 Licensing 1D1    
10 Licensing 1A1    
11 Licensing 1D2    
12 Licensing 1A2    
13 Licensing 1A2    
14 Licensing N/A    
15 Licensing 1A2    
16 Licensing 1A2    
17 Licensing 1G1    
18 Licensing 1G1    
19 Operating 7A3    
20 Operating 7A5    
21 Operating 7C1    
22 Operating   7E1  
23 Operating 7B1    
24 Operating 7A4    
25 Electronics   2I1  
26 Electronics     2H1
27 Electronics   2H1  
28 Electronics     2G1
29 Electronics   2I3  
30 Electronics   2J4  
31 Electronics     2J3
32 Electronics     2I3
33 Electronics   3I3  
34 Electronics     3I4
35 Electronics   3L1  
36 Electronics     3C3
37 Electronics   2i4  
38 Transmitters   3A3  
39 Transmitters   6D4  
40 Transmitters   3G5  
41 Transmitters 3G1    
42 Transmitters   3G4  
43 Transmitters   3G2  
44 Transmitters 3G1    
45 Transmitters 6D4    
46 Transmitters 3G1    
47 Transmitters   3A3  
48 Transmitters     3F
49 Transmitters   3H4  
50 Transmitters 3G1    
51 Transmitters     3G
52 Transmitters   3H  
53 Transmitters   3H  
54 EMC 6D1    
55 EMC   3C  
56 EMC 6A4    
57 EMC   6B2  
58 EMC 6B1    
59 EMC 6D1    
60 EMC 6D1    
61 EMC 6D1    
62 EMC 60    
63 EMC   6D1  
64 EMC 4A1    
65 EMC 6G1    
66 Electronics   2G1  
67 Antennas 4F1    
68 Antennas   5A4  
69 Propagation 5B2    
70 Propagation   5B3  
71 Antennas 4D1    
72 Antennas   4C5  
73 Antennas     4A3
74 Antennas 4C3    
75 Construction   9A2  
76 Construction 4C3    
77 Construction   2J4  
78 Construction   3C  
79 Construction   6D4  
80 Construction     9A8
         
  TOTAL 42 28 11
  PERCENTAGE 53% 35% 14%

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