People go to university to get a degree, not just any degree but a "good" degree. A "good" degree is a 2.1 or higher. A 2.1 will enable you to apply for a job without having your CV immediately thrown in the bin. It's the bare minimum for most graduate jobs. A 2.2 looks sloppy, while a third-class degree means you're either pathologically lazy, very unlucky or rather thick – none of which appeals to employers. Simply having a degree is no longer enough. Degree classifications thus matter more than ever. Despite this, students often don't know or don't trust the way that their degrees are classified.
Three French students at Sheffield decided to test how consistent the marking was. They sent off three almost identical translations for marking and three different grades were returned. The highest got 76 per cent (a strong first), while the lowest got 53 per cent (a low 2.2). The other received 60 per cent (a 2.1). Although it was hardly a scientific study, it confirmed the fears of non-scientists.
Practically every arts student has submitted an essay that they felt got an undeserved grade. Recently, I handed in an essay that I modestly thought was a work of staggering genius, which received a 2.1. The next one, which I thought was 3,000 words of gibberish, got a first. Yo-yo marking is an everyday hazard for those who are studying essay-based subjects.
The nature of these subjects means that marking is subjective. Each department has its hawks and doves when it comes to marking. One lecturer told me that the disagreements stemmed not from how high to go with the good ones, but how much of a kicking they could give the bad ones. A collective groan went up in one of my classes when it emerged that a particular professor with a penchant for miserly marking would be moderating our dissertations.
Small variances in marking can make a big difference. Last year 48 per cent of undergraduates got a 2.1. An upper-second has stopped being a mark of intelligence and has instead become a mark of adequacy. A first is one of the few ways to make your CV stand out. But a single dodgy mark can torpedo your chance of getting one, leaving you on the 2.1 heap with nearly half of all other graduates.
This academic logjam creates a problem for students and employers. There is a big difference between someone who gets 69.4 per cent and just misses out on a First and someone who scrapes into the class with 60.1 per cent. The upper-second classification is easy to get into, but hard to get out of. Good students who fall short and bad students who fluke their way in are lumped together into one classification, as both have 2.1 written on their CV.
For those worried about grade inflation, getting a first is still reassuringly tricky. But the main battle is to understand how they are awarded. I asked a professor to explain the methodology andhe admitted that he was probably one of only a few faculty members who knew exactly – but he couldn't really explain it to me. If my professors are unsure of what constitutes a first, how am I supposed to get one? Then again, if I'm this confused by a weighted average, I probably don't deserve one.