A lament for the third-class degree

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The Independent Culture
SOME OF my best friends got a third-class degree, and they're amongst the most impressive and successful people I know. It only goes to prove that formal academic attainment has only a tenuous connection with the sorts of talent needed to get on in life, that some people do not do very well in exams, and besides that, a degree is only a hurdle to jump over before you get on with life.

However, it turns out that other people take the degree business very much more seriously. Universities have more or less stopped handing out thirds because it puts students off applying to them. There are also more firsts. More than one -in-five students at Oxford and Cambridge universities get a first now, compared with fewer than one-in-10 in 1960. The proportions getting thirds have gone from around 30 per cent to less than 5 per cent.

Now, educational standards can certainly improve over time. But it is hard to believe that they have doubled in quality, so that one-in-five of today's undergraduates is objectively as brilliant as the one-in-10 who got a first in my day.

In other words, the whole scale of standards has moved along a notch. A starred first is now a real first, and the second-class second has become a substitute for the third. It is not quite the same as universities dumbing down, although, vigorously as they deny it, they are doing that too. Rather, it is a bit like relabelling unfashionable Kilburn, in north London, as West Hampstead. It does nothing to improve the area, and everybody knows what is going on, but labels change anyway.

In the case of degrees, this reflects the increasingly narrow and utilitarian way we regard higher education. It is part of the same phenomenon that sees students pouring into useful courses such as business studies, media studies or law. They have their eyes on a bright future as a City fat cat or television presenter. The last thing they want is an education or, heaven forbid, a rounded personality.

Yet that was the whole point of the gentleman's third. It signalled somebody who was compos mentis and could get through such minimum academic rigours as the university presented. Yet the proud owners of a third-class degree had spent their time in more enriching pursuits. They had acted, edited magazines, written novels, shone on the sports field or river, even set up their own businesses. And, sure, some of them got drunk, took drugs and went to parties. The university was the environment that gave them the opportunity and indulgence to make a start on all these non-vocational areas of human endeavour.

I suppose in these days of tuition fees and student loans we should have some sympathy for the pragmatic ambitions of today's students. They want a degree as a passport to a job that will pay off the loan. It is entirely on a par with the direction the rest of the education system is taking: vocational, focused on results and intolerant of diversity.

This would be fine if success, either personal or national, were closely linked to the number of units of brainpower being churned out of the educational factories. There are links, but they are subtle and shifting. Focus on them too directly and they will flit out of reach.

Take entrepreneurship, for example. Britain needs more of it. And indeed, some business skills can be taught to an extremely rigorous intellectual level. Great swathes of Britain's executives could do with being sent back to business school and taught to use their brains, so mediocre are they and so anti-intellectual by temperament.

Yet entrepreneurship is impossible to teach and grade. Many entrepreneurs - think of Alan Sugar and Richard Branson - famously got on badly with formal education. Those budding entrepreneurs who do get to university get on with creating a business in the captive market of their fellow students. One of my third-class contemporaries started out running a service photocopying and packaging journal articles from the course reading-lists.

Today's poor saps, whose expectations are forcing the universities to award them a higher class of degree than they might have got 20 or 40 years ago, will find it doesn't help them when they get out in to the big wide world. Employers know what they want, and will use other signals to weed out the candidates who do not fit the bill. They will set the hurdle at a 2:1 instead of a 2:2, or restrict themselves to people from better universities, or look for signs of extra-curricular activity.

For the sad fact is that it is an elitist world, where some people are better than others at some things. Pretending that almost everybody has the brains to deserve a good degree will not fool a prospective employer who can see beneath the label as soon as a candidate starts talking.

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