The good old Lower Second, once the staple university degree that nearly half of all students received, was no longer good enough. Since then the trend has accelerated. Now, self-respecting graduates won't be seen dead with a 2:2.
The main reason, according to Professor Peter Scott of the University of Leeds, is that academics no longer see much point in Upper and Lower Seconds. "The 'drift' we have been seeing reflects the fact that academic grading is not and can never be an exact science," he says. "More university teachers are simply refusing to distinguish within the second class."
Back in the dark ages when I was an undergraduate, the distinctions within the second class were worried over with almost theological intensity. Marking was elaborate, and academics believed it to be accurate.
Then, substantial numbers got Thirds, usually because they did no work. As for Firsts, well they simply shone - Hale-Bopp comets in the academic sky.
Some professors believed that there were such things as "2:2 minds"; the point of their marking schemes was to identify different types of intellect. Others believed that it was not so much mind, as attending lectures. They wrote books such as First-Class Answers in History, implying that degree classification was a matter of preparing for final exams. Those who did not read the right books deserved a second-class fate.
Degree classes certainly mattered. English men and women of a certain age are indelibly marked with three educational facts: the number of O- levels they took, their A-level grades, and their degree class.
But that was then - pre-Eighties. Officially, degree classifications are a matter for individual universities. The Higher Education Funding Council says that it only "takes a note" of how many Firsts, Seconds and so on are awarded, but not very attentively; degree classes are only one element in the assessments of teaching quality that underpin grant allocations.
There can be no doubt that it has become more common to get a good degree. More students get Firsts now than ever before. Nearly half of students are awarded Upper Seconds now, while only a third get Lower Seconds - the reverse of the picture 20 years ago.
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, just over 7 per cent of all undergraduates can expect to get Firsts, and the proportion has not changed much in the past five years. What that means, of course, is that greater numbers now get Firsts. There are, it seems, more "first- class minds" around, and strikingly fewer lower-second intellects.
Studies suggest that grade inflation took off with a vengeance in the Eighties. In some subjects the proportion of graduates getting Firsts may have increased by nearly 50 per cent between 1973 and 1993.
But why? It is stretching credulity to say that students are so much brighter, or work so much harder; but are the alternative explanations, of professorial generosity or relaxing standards, any more plausible?
Three years ago, pushed by an anxious government, the university establishment began a rigorous investigation of these trends. Professor Keith Chapman of Aberdeen University produced a shock report last year for the Higher Education Statistics Agency - the main surprise being how little monitoring of degree classifications has been done, and how little we still know about who gets what kind of degree and why.
He examined eight subjects, including history, French, maths, biology and accountancy, and looked at trends. His data show that the 2:2 is in steep decline. At some point between 1980 and 1990, the proportion of 2:1s awarded started to exceed the 2:2s - except in civil engineering. If the trend against the 2:2 established by Prof Chapman is extrapolated, it won't be many years into the next century before nobody gets anything but a 2:1.
We also know that the odds on getting a Lower Second - or a First - vary dramatically between different subjects and between different universities. Oxford gives more Firsts, as a proportion of all degrees, than most other universities (though not Cambridge). But the chances of getting an Oxford First differ little from two decades ago, suggesting remarkable continuity in marking regimes on the Isis.
There is a one-in-five chance of being awarded a First in maths, while only one in 30 law students receives one.
As for Lower Seconds, students have been most likely to receive one in accountancy, although that has changed too: graduate accountants are emerging more often with 2:1s.
"But the question", Prof Scott says, "is whether this differentiation matters."
The spirit of the age thinks it does. This is the era of league tables, quantitative comparisons. If we can rank schools according to their A- level grades, why not list colleges on the proportion of Firsts they award?
"But universities do not have a common curriculum, thank goodness," Prof Scott says. "Students, their teachers and their employers look at them one by one."
The Higher Education Quality Council (a university, not a government body) is struggling with the concept of "graduateness": which objective qualities someone with a university degree ought to possess. It has already given the Dearing committee the benefit of its draft thoughts, and is due to report in the summer on "what is a graduate".
This report is unlikely to be definitive, and could imply that we should just accept diversity in marking schemes and degree marking. Excellent teaching, as officially measured, does not correlate with degree classifications.
Paradoxically, it was the Conservatives who broke up what machinery there was to guarantee comparability between degrees across the universities. The Council for National Academic Awards was abandoned when the former polytechnics became universities.
Universities all employ external examiners from other universities to check examination scripts, but the Chapman report noted how they failed to stop grade inflation and actually actively condoned it.
The inconsistency of academic marking has attracted strong criticism. Earlier this year, Stephen Newstead, president of the British Psychological Society, called for an overhaul of the student assessment system to offset what he called "worrying variations" in marking. He cited the example of two experienced markers differing by 70 per cent in the marks they gave a history script. In another study, Prof Newstead gave six essays to 14 experienced examiners in psychology and found "dramatic" variations.
There was also evidence of discrimination against women students, who tended to be marked down compared with men. On average, male students are awarded twice as many Firsts.
But does it matter? For certain kinds of employment it does, and foremost among them is academe itself. To be considered for postgraduate work, especially at doctoral level, a First is almost a sine qua non. Except that academics are privy to the internal valuations made daily within disciplines about departments and scholars, and assess graduates of particular places accordingly - in politics and law, say, a 2:1 from certain universities is deemed as good as a First elsewhere.
Graduate recruiters in the private sector use a variety of markers, of which degree class is only one. The professional bodies, among them the Law Society and the Engineering Council, seem happy enough with differences in grading. Employers and professionals know which departments and universities are good, and degree class matters less.
Professor Alan Smithers, of Brunel University, says: "It's better to let each department and each institution find its own level. We must give up the pretence that a degree is a degree is a degree."
But grade inflation can be costly if students are forced to seek postgraduate qualifications because their undergraduate degree is not distinct enough, says Professor Gareth Williams, of the London University Institute of Education: "If those who study hard end up with the same degree as those who don't, we may end up with the American situation, where everyone has to go on and get a master's degree"Reuse content