Higher Education / Viewpoint: Firsts among equals? Not really: Claims that all degrees have the same value are ludicrous

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Last winter I upset the headmistress of an independent school for girls. In a talk to a group of parents of sixth-formers, I said I did not believe that all British degrees were of equal or even vaguely similar standard. In so doing I disagreed with one of the received wisdoms of British higher education: institutions may be different in style, they may be ugly or beautiful, old or new, popular or unpopular, but the degrees awarded are all equal.

This wisdom is quite different from that which applies in many other countries. In the United States, for example, guidebooks rate universities and colleges in a series of leagues and divisions, from Harvard at the top to the most lowly college in 2,000th place. The tables are based largely on difficulty of entry, and there is a very clear assumption that the higher the qualifications of the intake, the higher the standard of the degree. The obvious logic is that a well-qualified intake results in more intense and higher-quality work, which allows students to cover more ground and to cope with more difficult subject matter.

This does not apply to the same extent in Britain because we have a much smaller system with more demanding entry requirements. Almost half of Americans go to university or college; here, despite recent expansion, the proportion is still a little under a third.

Even allowing for this much greater overall selectivity, it has long puzzled me that Oxbridge's silken raw materials, with their As and Bs at A-level, somehow become a similar end product to that of the least popular university, which has to work with the sow's ears of near A-level failure.

Of course, factors other than innate ability affect A-level performance. At another parents' evening held on a bitter winter's night, I sat next to a Cambridge admissions tutor, whom I congratulated on his public spirit.

'Very good of you to turn out on a night like this.'

'Always keen to get another applicant or two.'

'But surely you are overflowing with excellent candidates?'

A despairing shrug.

'The public schools are the problem, you see.'

Not seeing instantly, I waited for him to go on.

'At some of them the teaching is so good that a moderately intelligent chimpanzee could get an A and two Bs. However much you try to help them, they find degree work terribly difficult.'

At the other end of the British class system it could be argued that someone from an inner-city school might require a great deal of energy and grey matter to leave the sixth form with two Ds at A-level or its equivalent from the local technical college. Such a student should be able to blossom in the stimulation of the university environment.

However, most Oxbridge entrants are not superbly taught chimps and most polytechnic students will have been educated at the same schools as the vast majority of university entrants. How can degrees be equal when the raw materials are so different?

Apparently, degrees are equal because they are examined externally. Each degree course has an external examiner who teaches elsewhere within the system, and who checks a number of scripts to ensure that the department of Outer Mongolian Midwifery at Biggleswade College does not decide to award all of its graduates first-class honours degrees unless their work would have also deserved a First at Oxford.

I met a mature woman student, who was justifiably proud of obtaining a First despite the conflicting pressures of home, unhelpful husband and teenage children. I pricked up my ears when she mentioned the name of her external examiner, a man I know well. Some months later I saw him.

'Do you remember Mrs Blank, who got a First at Suchandsuch Poly?'

'I do indeed. She was a very good student.'

'She deserved her First?'

'Oh yes, by their standards she was an outstanding student.'

'Would she have got a First in your department?'

'Ah, well, I suppose not.'

'What then?'

'Oh, a middling upper Second, I would say.'

My academic colleagues will, of course, say all this is anecdotal. I agree that my amateur research on the topic lacks rigour, to put it mildly, but I have solved a nagging problem to my own satisfaction.

Under relentless government pressure, higher education is racing towards a participation rate of 30 per cent. When it was 10 or 12 per cent we might have been able to pretend all degrees were about equal. At 25 or 30 per cent this would surely be ridiculous.

The abolition of the binary divide means that we now have almost 100 universities and university colleges. I believe that it is inevitable that we will soon have something very like a US league table of prestige. Unlike the United States, location seems to be the vital factor in British university popularity, and some of the former polytechnics that are in attractive places could well overtake some of the established universities.

Why should it matter? Why should we not continue with the comfortable myth that all degrees are equal? Apart from the idea that higher education ought to have some regard for truth, there is at least one other reason for honesty. The middle class understands that there is a pecking order and that the status of the institution attended will influence children's careers - not just immediately, but sometimes as much as 20 or 30 years after graduation. Lower down the English class system parents have no such knowledge. They actually believe the statements about equality and therefore make choices that handicap their children in their subsequent careers.

I hold no particular brief for Oxbridge. Life at one of the new universities offers an experience that will, in many respects, be more practical and much more varied than is possible in the rarefied atmosphere of the dreaming spires. Let us recognise difference, instead of repeating ludicrous claims of academic equality.

The author is schools and international liaison officer at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, University of London. The views expressed are his and do not represent those of the college.

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