Tuesday, July 01, 2008

A degree of inflation

When I was an undergraduate (back in the early 1980's) a First Class degree was nigh on impossible to get. It was somewhat easier in the sciences or maths, but in a language - forget about it! How did the joke go? Something along the lines of, only truly outstanding students would ever earn over 70%, the professor who wrote the exam might be able to score 80%, but only God could get over 90%. In my department, an average on your finals of 60% or above earned you an upper second class degree, over 70% was a First. If you scored over 70% (or it may have been 80% - I no longer remember) on the final oral exam, it was noted in your degree result that you passed the oral exam "With Distinction."

No one in my department had earned a First in seven years, but we knew that Mike would get one. He was absolutely brilliant! His year-abroad dissertation read more like a Master's thesis. If anyone was going to get a First, Mike would. He didn't. We were given times for our oral exam, and told to report half an hour BEFORE the exam in order to prepare. Mike arrived early, only to find that in fact he had left himself only 15 minutes to prepare. Even he couldn't do himself justice. Although I'm sure his average on the written papers was easily a First, he was not awarded one because he did not pass the oral exam "With Distinction". In talking to the professors after the results were announced, one of them made the comment that it didn't really matter if Mike got a First or not - he was very clearly headed for a doctorate and once he had that no one would ever ask what his undergraduate degree result was.

Sure enough, Mike went on to earn his doctorate, become a published academic, and teach at the university level. Several years ago though, he quit academia. I remember that somewhere amongst his reasons, was the dumbing down of the curriculum, so it did not surprise me to read today:
The number of students achieving a first class degree at UK universities has more than doubled since the mid-1990s.

Among last year's university leavers, 61% achieved a first class or upper second class degree.
An upper second used to mean that your performance was above average! How can 61% of university leavers be above average? Twelve years ago, only 45% of university leavers had an upper second or a first. The sad thing is that this appears to be happening because Universities want students to like them. They think that if they become known for giving good grades, more students will want to go there. I was very happy with my undergraduate education. The fact that I earned an upper second class honours degree with Distinction in the oral exam, does not change my degree of satisfaction with the university. (Yes, on paper I did better than Mike, but I will always be honest about the fact that he was a FAR better student than I was.) Believe it or not, the fact that I was given a Dean's Warning (A Bad Thing!) at the end of both my first and second years, is what makes me happy with the education I received. After the second one I was asked to consider whether I really thought I was 'degree material'. I was not simply allowed to pass because I'd got in to uni. in the first place. It was made extremely clear to me that if I wanted a degree, let alone a decent one, I was going to have to work for it. That was probably the most valuable lesson I learned in my undergraduate years, and is one I have applied to many situations since then. Of course nowadays, no one ever asks me even at a job interview what my degree result was, but I am proud of the degree I earned and I am saddened at the thought that today's students are being denied the chance to earn something of value.


ADDY said...

I am sure that this is because these days so much rides on league tables and quality for money. The newspapers here publish a list of good-performing schools or universities in the UK at a glance. Parents or students judge the best places to go from these lists, so the schools or universities have a lot resting on their particular standing. They therefore pressure-cook their students into performing well to raise their standing in the league tables.

I notice from my daughter's progression through school that exams are certainly different from when I was at school and seem to be easier and more tolerant of mistakes. What would be accepted as an A mark these days would have gone for a C in my day.

Mmm said...

Yes, you know, you're quite right. I couldn't even do Uni in England as back in the 80's to do graphic design in London I had to got to Art college and cold only choose two to start with! .As much as i loved the idea of only doing art for 3 years, I realised I would likely need a broader education, just in case!

Anonymous said...

As an over 75 who reads yours ( and other ) blogs I must mention my own educational attainments. Back in the fifties, I had credits in eight O levels and three average A levels ....but on my C.V. I always listed ten O levels and four good A levels. (as they were in the last century !! ) To my knowledge, no one ever queried my qualifications. I am sure I was not the only one who adopted this policy ....could this perhaps account for the professional people I often came across who could neither spell nor count?

Almost American said...

@Anonymous - a friend of mine told me yesterday that she had been job-hunting quite unsuccessfully until she REMOVED the law degree form her resume.

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