Rowan Pelling: Me or the hamster: you decide

Nothing explains the level of underachievement represented by getting a third in English literature

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I don't hold with the view that your average pet hamster could swing a first-class degree at most British universities, but I do think a well-trained dolphin could probably scrape a pass. As the Lib Dem peer Lord Oakshott pointed out on the Today programme, following this week's recommendation that the current system of degree classification should be scrapped, there's something rum going on if the past five years alone have seen a 46 per cent rise in the awarding of first-class degrees. We're either looking at the alien spawn of a generation of Mekon-browed Midwich cuckoos or somebody's moved the goalposts right up to the ball. Now, I live in Cambridge surrounded by dons, and none of them believes a new dawn of genius and endeavour is upon us. Nor do they think, I hasten to add, that their pupils are getting more stupid - it's just that many can't spell, have no grasp of basic grammar and lack knowledge of elementary scientific principles. Like most people who are in regular receipt of CVs, I am amaz

I don't hold with the view that your average pet hamster could swing a first-class degree at most British universities, but I do think a well-trained dolphin could probably scrape a pass. As the Lib Dem peer Lord Oakshott pointed out on the Today programme, following this week's recommendation that the current system of degree classification should be scrapped, there's something rum going on if the past five years alone have seen a 46 per cent rise in the awarding of first-class degrees. We're either looking at the alien spawn of a generation of Mekon-browed Midwich cuckoos or somebody's moved the goalposts right up to the ball. Now, I live in Cambridge surrounded by dons, and none of them believes a new dawn of genius and endeavour is upon us. Nor do they think, I hasten to add, that their pupils are getting more stupid - it's just that many can't spell, have no grasp of basic grammar and lack knowledge of elementary scientific principles. Like most people who are in regular receipt of CVs, I am amazed by the discrepancy between impressive qualifications and the ability to write a decent sentence. One graduate with a first in humanities wrote, "I am obsessed by writing. I write on every peice [sic] of paper I see." My erstwhile staff and I contemplated this prodigy. "Can't safely send her to the stationery cupboard," said my deputy. "Nor the loo," I added.

You can't really blame the universities as New Labour's mania for performance targets has put them in a classic Catch-22 scenario: institutions need investment to raise standards but won't receive any funding unless they, er, first raise standards. Thus a government that supposedly champions diversity is raising a generation whose achievements are uniformly gold starred, increasingly ubiquitous but indicative of nothing. For centuries it was understood that a first meant you were either too clever for your own good or a girly swot, and either quality was potentially undesirable in a colleague. A second showed competence without overweening ambition. (Someone who accepts second-best won't want to usurp the boss.) And finally there was the wild card of a third-class degree. A "gentleman's third" meant you were the pleasure-seeking scion of a well-heeled family who had spent three years beagling and banging Sloanes and an employer would take you on only if your father, Sir Henry, invested with them. But nothing fully explains the magnificent level of underachievement represented by, say, getting a third in English literature when you've read a few books and need to spell Shakespeare's name correctly only to score some points. Yes, I do speak from abashed self-experience. I draw some comfort from the fact Evelyn Waugh, W H Auden, Will Self, Philip Pullman andCarol Vorderman pulled off the same sorry feat. My own excuse? It had something to with a moment of clarity during my first-year examinations, when I looked round at hundreds of fellow students scrawling frenziedly away as though rifles were pointed at their heads and thought, "And yet no one gives a monkey's about Piers Plowman's bloody vision, least of all me."

By my final year I could barely cover half a sheet of A4 in three hours. Knowing that I would disgrace my college I suggested to its principal, the late Rachel Trickett, who resembled Yoda from Star Wars in a twin-set, that I should do the decent thing and drop out. "Why?" said Trickett. "At the worst you'll get a third and it won't make a jot of difference to your life." Hysteria about "appropriate" qualifications has devalued any form of knowledge not accompanied by a signed certificate, to the point where the headmaster of league-topping Westminster School was told he'd have to retrain before he could teach in the state sector. Similarly, when my husband ran the military history department of a big publisher and wanted to advertise for an assistant, he was told by human resources (what you and I used to call personnel) that the ad must specify, "good degree essential". "Is it?" asked my husband. "Of course," they said. "Well, you'd better sack me then," he said. "I don't have one."

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