Your degree classification: 2:1 or not 2:1?

The degree classification system is based on arbitrary metrics, that fail to differentiate between the work ethic of students

Image: Will Folsom

You do not deserve a 2:1. This is indisputable. There is no way that you can look at the totality of the mental and financial expenditure that you’ve put into your degree and arrive at the conclusion that what you deserve, in the end, is a 2:1. Let me explain.

The honours classification system used by universities in the UK is, in theory, a way of demarcating the quality of the degree that an individual student has obtained. Outside of any touchy-feely notion of education’s value being something akin to the ‘broadening of the mind’, the classification system now really serves as a quantitative grouping metric which allows prospective employers to dole out first-glance job rejections with uzi-like efficiency and celerity, sparing them the trouble of having to meet thousands of candidates and assess their aptitude for a certain role based on character. A 2:1 degree is your passport to credibility in a service economy. But is this what you really deserve? Let’s take an example.

Imagine that you are, unfortunately, a second year undergraduate student of English Literature. You probably find it difficult to explain how this has happened to you, but you suspect that it’s probably penance for some egregious sin committed in a past life, or a convoluted subconscious career seppuku aimed at your middle-class parents’ financial expectations for you.

You work hard. You firmly believe that the value of education is ‘autotelic’. That is, you think education is ‘an end in itself’, but instead of simply saying “education is an end in itself” you say “education is autotelic” because you heard the word being used by that one really cool lecturer that everyone says is “a legend” because he’s sarcastic. So you don’t worry too much about job prospects on a day-to-day basis, though you do occasionally have to face the issue head on. Usually, this is during bouts of periodic anxiety induced by particularly intensive Modafinil-fuelled coursework, writing flurries on the top floor of the library, amateurishly palm reading the lines in your clammy hands during one of the scores of bathroom breaks that your study drugging has necessitated.

You really do want to do well out of university. The ‘real world’ is still far enough away to ignore for the time being, but you know that it is inescapably coming for you and act accordingly. You care about your essay results. And you’re currently averaging 68 per cent. With just a little bit of effort, you can tip yourself over into a First.

At the same time, you have a flatmate also doing English Lit. Academically, he is your opposite number. He does the absolute minimum that is required to not get kicked out of his programme. Most of his contact time is spent in Derwent offices explaining unexplained absences from seminars (which, when he does attend, usually consist of contributions amounting to little more than displaying vital signs). He was really cheesed off about the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 because it meant that he couldn’t buy synthetic cannabinoids easily anymore, and so instead has taken to smoking zeppelin-like joints of good old fashioned marijuana on a tri-daily basis. Fittingly, he exploits York’s liberal ‘pick your own essay topic’ policy by cunningly choosing topics he already knows about, writing night-before-the-deadline landfills of stoner meditations like “The Psychoanalytic Turn in Pink Floyd’s The Wall” and “Trauma Theory in Rick and Morty”.

His essays are sloppy but different, so examiners look mercifully on the glaring grammatical blobs and referencing train wrecks that litter his scholarship. He’s currently averaging 58 per cent, with the 2:2 sword of Damocles dangling perilously over his transcript at all times. He spends most of his time in his room, drinking and smoking, shirking all forms of cleanliness in both environment and personal hygiene. As such his lack of work ethic clearly bleeds into all areas of his existence, and you shudder whenever you consider the thought that this is in fact the guy that people have in mind when they abstractly imagine English Literature students, an avatar for breath-taking laziness and self-indulgence.

You will ultimately both get a 2:1. You will just miss that First, not because you don’t work hard enough, but because your marks aren’t consistently brilliant. Your flatmate, on the other hand, will just scrape a 2:1, not because he’s worked hard enough, but because his work is just consistently inoffensive enough to achieve what examiners call “acceptable”. The real iniquity though is not that you deserve a first just because this guy’s work is worse than yours, but rather that you definitely deserve to be differentiated from someone who has barely lifted a finger.

Our current degree classification system crudely lumps the efforts of the dedicated in with the desiccated, with no meaningful stratification in between. Come graduation, the same result will feel like a lifelong disappointment to some and a stay of execution for others. No matter which camp you fall into, there’s no way you deserve a 2:1.

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