What is a first really worth?

Are you really as clever as you think, or are our degree standards just being ‘dumbed down’? Joanne Grant looks at growing accusations of grade inflation in our universities and questions the value of our degrees

It looks as if those halcyon days when education really meant something have well and truly passed. While GCSEs and A-Levels have received their fair share of bad publicity, the Honours Degree has, until now, remained relatively untouched and, therefore, untarnished. However, it now seems increasingly unlikely that things will remain this way. Already, proposals to replace the current system of classification (that is: thirds, lower seconds, upper seconds etc) with a new system that awards either a pass, distinction or fail, are under review at this very moment.

So, why the need for change? The thinking is that if the number of people graduating from university with a ‘good’ degree is increasing, then degrees themselves must be getting easier. Last year 28,300 first class degrees were awarded, an increase of 7,600 on 1999. An astonishing 86% of all graduates now expect an upper second or a first in their degree. Not even the fact that only 60% go on to fulfil that expectation has served to dampen the debate.

Unarguably, 2:1s have come to displace the 60% of 2:2s, or ‘Desmonds’ (Tutu), awarded in the 1980s. The notorious ‘third’ or the ‘Vorderman’ (of the Carol variety) as she is more commonly known, has almost become a thing of the past. Some point to this as evidence of the ‘devaluation’ of degrees. The Higher Education Standards Agency would disagree; “there is no particular evidence that the reduction in the number of third class honour degrees awarded reflects anything other than an improvement in the achievement of the student cohort.”

Contrary to what some would have us believe, i.e. that degrees are getting easier, we are, it would seem, working harder. A senior marker at York echoes this sentiment; “I give as many 2:2s and thirds as are deserved. I haven’t given many at York, but that is simply because York students work hard and are smart.” Perhaps, then, the proliferation of firsts and relative absence of thirds at York also has something to do with the fact that it is a good university.

The ‘dumbing down’ of degrees debate comes at a time of increasingly negative coverage in the press. The ‘joke’ courses offered at various academic institutions around Britain are a particular favourite with the tabloids. Some, admittedly, are just plain silly. Fancy getting that bit closer to David Beckham? Well now’s your chance: by studying him at university. It does make you wonder what the reading list looks like; one assumes his numerous mundane autobiographies make up much of the content.

But History at York is hardly the same thing. There is, after all, an unmistakable correlation between grades at A-Level and subsequent achievement at degree level. It makes sense that those with As and Bs on entry (a requirement of the top universities) are the most likely to exit with upper seconds and firsts. And with competition for course places growing ever fiercer, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that marks are on the increase.

The highly competitive graduate job market is the other thing that scares many an undergraduate into putting some serious hours in at the library. Since the demise of the grant system, students have come to face the reality of up to £20,000 of debt on graduation. One penniless Sociology student, Caera Mahoney, said, “I really can’t justify the cost of university if I don’t leave with a decent degree. I try to treat it like I would a 9 to 5 job.” The situation can only become more acute with the recent introduction of top-up fees.

Student lifestyle as depicted by Rik Mayall and his fellow layabouts in The Young Ones simply no longer holds. We wash our hair now for a start. There was a time when ‘going to university’ evoked images of a three-year-long round of binge drinking followed by a hung-over slump in front of ‘Neighbours’. There is of course still an element of that, but now the vast majority of us manage to squeeze some work in between all the hedonism.

However, there is an alternative theory to the one that claims we are all working harder, and that is the theory that we are all getting cleverer. The findings of the ‘Flynn effect’ show that the average IQ score increases by 3 points per decade. So either we are cheating the system and taking the same IQ test year upon year, therein getting to know the questions very well indeed, or we really are cleverer than our (grant-maintained) parents.

Whatever the reason, we are all doing alright, thanks very much. But if you do find yourself slogging your guts out to pass while other people appear to breeze through, don’t be disheartened. “Even a 2:2, in the grand scheme of things, is a good degree and puts you ahead of the majority of the population”, says one York academic. Take comfort in the thought then that whatever you’re aiming for, be it indeed a ‘Desmond’, or a first, it will be worth it in the end.

How to get a first – even if it is a pointless waste of time and effort

1) Forget your friends. If your initial reaction to that was “What friends?”, then you are already halfway there.

2) Remember, forty hours is the minimum. And that doesn’t include toilet breaks. Consider a drip?

3) If you have a significant other, and, frankly, you would be foolish if you did, allocate them time slots. Forty-five minutes face-to-face contact seems adequate, while you multitask.

4) Eat at your desk. Lunch is for failures.

5) You might think that falling down the stairs at Ziggy’s after one too many lurid coloured shots is acceptable time off. Indeed, some people might even term it fun, but it’s not going to get you a first now, is it? Or, if you find yourself in a similar situation every day, a degree at all.

6) Sleep is for average people, view the night time as a secret expanse of time in which to outshine normal honours students.

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