Standards under scrutiny as firsts at university soar

A report shows students are performing better but, asks Fran Abrams, have degrees lost their value?
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THE late Sir Kingsley Amis predicted that more would mean worse. In fact, according to a report leaked to the Independent on Sunday, more has meant spectacularly better. Despite the rise in the numbers going to university, the proportion of students getting first-class degrees has soared.

In physics, nearly one in four gets a first-class degree against one in eight 20 years ago. In maths, 20 per cent get a first and an upper second has become so common that a lower second is hardly worth having.

When the report - part of an official inquiry into degree standards - is published in the New Year, arguments are likely to rage over whether there has been a genuine improvement or whether Amis was right after all and universities have simply lowered their standards. Some critics will argue that universities have gone in for "grade inflation" on an enormous scale and will call for the whole system of degree classification to be scrapped. It could be replaced by a simple pass or fail system.

The report is based on an analysis of the results of more than 250,000 graduates between 1973 and 1993. The survey was carried out by Professor Keith Chapman, a geographer from the University of Aberdeen, on behalf of the Higher Education Quality Council.

As well as the dramatic rise in firsts and upper seconds over the 20- year period, Professor Chapman found enormous variations between different universities. One unnamed maths department awards firsts to more than 60 per cent of its students, while most regard fewer than one in five as being worthy of such an accolade.

One accountancy department awards "good" degrees - firsts and upper seconds - to more than three-quarters while another gives them to just a quarter. And fast-growing subjects such as accountancy are more likely to have difficulty in maintaining comparable standards in different universities.

Professor Chapman's research - based on established universities, not the converted colleges - covered eight subjects: accountancy, biology, civil engineering, French, history, maths, physics and politics. Though he found the proportion of firsts rising, Professor Chapman reports that biology and French have changed little, with fewer than one in 10 of students getting firsts. Politics students are among the least likely to get a first - fewer than one in 20.

The report does not speculate on whether the trends are worrying, but the quality council's inquiry will certainly address the issue. Some vice- chancellors have suggested that ordinary and third-class degrees - now less common than firsts - should be abolished. Even some students who currently gain lower seconds might not pass in future, they have suggested. The lower second was once a good, solid degree but now students who reach this standard are likely to miss out in the jobs market. Others have called for a pass/fail system with a distinction for exceptional students.

Concern about standards has been growing as the proportion of young people going to university has risen steadily. In 1973, just 14 per cent of 18-year-olds went into higher education but now the figure has risen to more than 30 per cent.

"You can use this data either to prove that standards have gone down or gone up," said Roger Brown, chief executive of the quality council. "The information is interesting and we are reflecting on what it means."