Education+: A first among equals? Hardly

Students at the elite universities work harder than those elsewhere, says Jack Arthur, yet are less likely to get a first or 2.1. Isn't it time for a more equitable system?
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As I sat through the Cambridge University graduation ceremony my mind wandered, and I pondered on why the bottle of champagne we had sent our daughter in celebration of her success remained unopened. She had brilliantly survived the intellectual onslaught of a Cambridge undergraduate programme and gained a very good 2.1, missing a first by just one mark. Jill must be upset, I concluded, because the examiners had marked her dissertation down, contradicting the professor, the expert who had supervised it, who had predicted it would win a first-class mark; this meant that she had just missed a first overall.

Later I asked Jill about it, and learnt that the dissertation experience was not really the point. "Nearly all my friends got 2.1s, and hardly anyone here is particularly happy with their degree. If I had gone to a university in Middle England I would have got a 2.1, or perhaps a first, with much less work, either at university or at school beforehand."

This put me in a quandary, for I am a lecturer at one of the universities in Middle England in a non-science discipline fairly close to Jill's, and I also play my part in moderating the standards of other British universities under the external examining system. I wanted to protest to Jill that the firsts and 2.1s awarded outside Cambridge are definitely worthy of the name, and that in any case top A-level grades by no means inevitably lead to a first-class university degree. Also, I indignantly wanted to inform her that my students who get firsts work extremely hard. On the other hand, I wanted to tell her that to have a Cambridge degree is a cut above having a degree from almost all other universities in the country, and that this should give her a head start in the world of work that now confronted her.

My message to my daughter is clearly riddled with contradictions, just as Jill's perceptions of things are no doubt shot through with prejudice. But our perspectives together have led me to think about three things - about student workload in British universities, about examining procedures, and about the reporting of overall degree classifications.

On the matter of workload I absolutely believe that a student should be intellectually stretched as far as he or she will go, and so am resolutely against imposing on all universities a uniform curriculum for each academic discipline. But is this compatible with the currently politically correct view that a first from Cambridge "is the same as" a first from anywhere else? From what my daughter and her friends tell me it does seem that, partly thanks to the college tutorial system, greater levels of work and intellectual accomplishment compressed into briefer periods of time are required from the Cambridge student compared with what most other universities would impose on their students. If this impression is indeed correct, then the message ought to go out that a Cambridge first is better than at most places elsewhere; otherwise, arising from Jill's perception of things, student recruitment at this august university ought to plummet.

As to examining procedures, the difference between Cambridge and many other universities may be that Cambridge is mean-spirited, while generosity of spirit prevails elsewhere. When I examine in various universities in Middle England, what continually strikes me is that the marking of individual questions and examination papers is pretty stern (standards of marking have not dropped over the years). But when it comes to arriving at the overall degree classification, efforts are made to give the candidate (who remains anonymous) the benefit of the doubt - recognising the subjectivity in marking in most non-science subjects.

In one university, for example, while 70 per cent is the mark necessary for a first-class answer, candidates will be awarded a first overall if they obtain 70 per cent in at least half of their papers, and at least an overall average of 65 per cent. Also, candidates with a mark just one below a borderline will invariably have it pushed up to the higher classificatory level. I have known final examinations meetings to be adjourned so that crucial, borderline work from a particular candidate may be read over once again to check that fairness has been done. In some universities borderline candidates are vivaed.

In the case of Cambridge, such generosity seems not, on face of it, to have been afforded in Jill's instance. Perhaps Cambridge is embarrassed because, among all British universities, it already awards the highest proportion of firsts; generosity to its students would only add to the number. But Jill and her friends have their own way of looking at this: because Cambridge attracts overall the brightest youngsters (on the strength of A-level grades and highly testing interviews), one should expect the university to be awarding an even higher proportion of firsts. (Jill will, of course, concede that one or two other universities are going to be in much the same position).

Finally, there is the degree classification system itself. These days, resulting from the fact that students both are taught better and work harder, far greater numbers get firsts and 2.1s. But then Jill protests that her top 2.1, which included plenty of first-class answers, is counted as the same as someone (from another university) who just scrapes into the 2.1 bracket.

From the combined experience of Jill and myself, from the two sides of the university divide, I think two recommendations are in order. The first, which is against my own interest to make, is that some sort of two-tier (or even three- or four-tier) university system in the UK is inevitable. Many students desire this, not because of elitism, but in the name of fairness. The second is that the current mode of reporting on degrees - into firsts, 2.1s, 2.2s, and so on - ought to be abolished, and in its place should be introduced a much more fine-grained "grade point average" (GPA) system such as is employed in American universities.

Reporting in terms of such a single, undivided numerical scale would offer two obvious advantages. First, there would be provided a transparent means to display a student's relative achievements, which is important when it comes to seeking employment. Second, the labelling of students as "first-class" or "2.2ers" would cease. Indeed, because the numerical reporting in the GPA system can extend to two decimal points, students wouldn't remember or care what friends and rivals in their own or other universities achieved, and the sort of anguish that has befallen our family over the past month would become a thing of the pastn

`Jack Archer' (a pseudonym) is a senior lecturer in a non-science department in a British university outside the Oxford, Cambridge and London "golden triangle".