A degree is like an Olympic medal - you want a gold not a report card

Do students really need a full-length, in-depth report detailing how they performed at university?

A“working group” has been set up under the vice-chancellor of Leicester University, Professor Sir Robert Burgess, to investigate the abolition of the old degree classifications system.

No longer will students emerge from their three years of hoggish indolence, erotic experiment and cyberspatial plagiarism with a First, a Second or a Third. They’ll now be given a Higher Education Achievement Report, which is like a school report, only longer and far more boring.

It’ll rant on about the courses and “modules” taken by students, the “skills” they’ve mastered, plus random details about whether they did volunteer work or played in the lacrosse team. All this, says Prof Sir Robert, is “designed to encourage a more sophisticated approach to recording students’ achievements in the 21st century” than single-degree classifications, which, he continued, give “not enough detail for students and employers”.

Oh, please. Sir Robert and his working group fail to understand the power that’s packed in those three levels of degree. Who would really prefer to have the most glowing Higher Education Achievement Report (“Derek possesses a fine grasp of the symbolism of teapots in late-Victorian nonsense verse, and expresses himself with verve and elegance…”) than the glory, the ecstasy, the quiet internal bliss of getting a First? 

It’s like the Olympics. We saw the striving, the bulging sinews and bursting lungs et cetera of the athletes – but the point was to get the gold, not to look forward to six pages of explanatory prosifying (“Mr Farah’s legs ran alternately forward with considerable velocity, while the rest of his body accompanied them with admirable skill…”).

I never got a First. Like most people, I got a Second. At Oxford, though, they don’t believe in “2:1” and “2:2” classifications, just the naked word. So we students had to find out how we were marked in individual papers – and what a joy it was to discover the examining tutors’ inky inscription of an exquisitely nuanced “B++(?)+” or “A-/A- -”. We never understood the subtle critical workings of their adjudicating minds – but it would have ruined the magic to have their classification reduced to a page of schoolmaster-speak. Why would a potential employer care tuppence?

Back in the 1970s everybody who’d been awarded a Second called it an “Upper Second” (though my friend Glyn modestly admitted his was a “Lower Upper Second”). If you got a Third, you flaunted it as the mark of a louche and insouciant playboy. But – a super-brainy pal told me – a First was like acquiring a knighthood, a halo, and an odour of intellectual sainthood.  Can they replace that with the equivalent of a gold star? As ideas go, it’s a C-minus.

Queue the costumes

Hallowe’en is coming our way like a speeding bullet and the shops are filling up with scary masks and costumes. Among the more bad-taste ones are Jesus Christ costumes (complete with fake beard and “thorny twine headpiece”) distributed by the Spirit corporation. And, no, they don’t offer Mohammed costumes, for some reason.

But effortlessly eclipsing the Jesus costume is an inspired creation. Remember “Ecce Homo,” the fresco of Christ in a Spanish church, which was “restored,” or rather turned into a fuzzy portrait of a hairy simian, by an octogenarian art re-toucher called Cecilia Giminez? It’s now available as a mask, accessorised with bushy hair and lovely orange robes. Ms Giminez must be so proud. Will she demand intellectual property rights?