Mary Dejevsky: Award more firsts – but don't pretend standards are higher

Those who need to know what your degree is worth still know
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When I first started writing leaders, the unsigned editorials that are a set-piece of most British newspapers, the word was that the lack of a byline did not amount to anonymity. "Those who need to know," I was told, "know." You could say the same about university degrees and their classification. Those who need to know – and that includes the universities and most potential employers – know.

Which is not to say that the worries recently expressed by MPs are not valid. In a report just released, the Commons universities committee voiced concern about widely varying standards in grading, and called for urgent action to safeguard the integrity of degrees. It recommended that hoary old standby: an independent watchdog (and another sinecure for the great and good).

As with any discussion of the exam system in recent years, so-called "grade inflation" figured prominently, backed by figures showing that the proportion of first-class degrees awarded had almost doubled, to 13.3 per cent, between 1996-7 and 2007-8.

Now you know, and I know, what happens the moment anyone even whispers "grade inflation". Students and parents and teachers come over all offended and talk of hard work, rising standards and how everyone always tries to do down the younger generation. Government ministers follow suit, while a smaller constituency – some employers, Opposition politicians and a few maverick Oxbridge dons – speak of primary teachers without English A-level and graduates who can't spell or add up.

If MPs had hoped their end-of-term report would go uncontested by the universities – the only sector, they might have calculated, with holidays longer than theirs – they were wrong. The response was as apoplectic as it always is when a higher caste feels challenged by its inferiors. What a nerve, they cried, to find fault, when demand for university places was so strong. No matter that the one doesn't necessarily follow from the other.

Wendy Piatt, head of the Russell Group of top universities, put it this way: "An essential feature of a university is its academic freedom and autonomy with the responsibility to award degrees and standards." Now I don't think it is out of place to note that Dr Piatt has stellar New Labour credentials, but on this point she was on firm, non-political, ground.

British universities pride themselves on their independence. You take them, or leave them, as you find them. Friendly professors vet each other's grading. To demand consistency across the gamut of higher education is to demand something that has never been.

Nor, historically, has it really been missed. That applies to universities, just as it applies to the class of degree. After a term at Oxford, I remember comparing notes with school friends scattered across the map of British higher education. The Oxbridge group reeled off two essays, two translation classes, and – the well-known jewel of the system – two one-to-one tutorials every week. Elsewhere, it seemed, that weekly workload sufficed for a whole term. Science students generally had more structured timetables, but – after a gruelling race to A-levels – some of my erstwhile fellow linguists confessed to being bored.

A defence of this more relaxed approach is that self-motivation is key to higher education, and different courses suit different people. But it was no secret, even in those supposedly more rigorous times, that different universities had widely differing standards. When polytechnics restyled themselves as universities, the variety of degree courses expanded, as – surely – did the span of standards.

Does that spread matter any more now than it did then, except to those of us who may resent the devaluing of our degrees of yesteryear? I fear it might. That is not only because a first, like an A, blurs the distinction between the best and the very best, once it is awarded to 13.3 rather than 7.7 per cent. But it is also because the knowledge of what constitutes a good degree has not been democratised or internationalised nearly as much as Britain's universities have been in recent years.

Those who need to know what your degree is worth still know. But the many students applying from abroad and those from schools unversed in the arcane pecking order of our universities – surely they deserve to know, too.