Leading Article: The gentleman's Third under threat

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IN THE OLD days, people went to university to have a good time. Scientists apart, they spent their winters debating or writing for student newspapers and their summers playing tennis while squeezing into their spare time just enough work to keep their tutors happy. Six weeks before finals, they would start to study in earnest; and luck and a ready pen would earn them an acceptable degree and a start into professional life.

Those who look back on that with nostalgia will be horrified to hear of a speech made earlier this week by the chairman of London University's academic council. Professor Geoffrey Alderman, himself a graduate of Oxford in the Sixties, wants universities to publish transcripts of how their students did in each paper. He would be happy to see more continuous assessment; and he is even willing to countenance German- style reports, giving precise details of how many students with what qualifications did the course in question, and in which percentile this particular student appeared.

Much of this is already reality. Many English university students have to write dissertations, and what they do week by week counts towards their degrees. Some subjects do not distinguish Firsts from Thirds; medical students, for instance, simply pass or fail. Nobody knows whether a doctor of philosophy is the author of a thesis of shining brilliance or a journeyman who got through on the fifth rewrite with the help of a sympathetic supervisor. In any case, the traditional classification of degrees is an invention of this century; Oxford failed to separate upper from lower Seconds until the Seventies.

Professor Alderman believes that universities will be forced towards his style of classification whether they like it or not. The Data Protection Act 1984 allows students to demand all sorts of information about how they did on each paper, and thus to challenge the examiners if they believe they have been unfairly marked. More students change subjects or even university in mid- course, so the need is growing for more portable assessments. Universities that wish to help their alumni into graduate study in continental Europe have already found that professors in Paris, Heidelberg and Milan ask for more information than a simple First, Second or Third.

A more transparent system of assessment might well encourage students to work harder, and would give potential employers more precise information about whom they want to recruit. But is there perhaps a danger that under the changes Professor Alderman believes inevitable, the gentlemanly combination of well-judged laziness and brilliance will become extinct?

Not necessarily. Institutions that spurn reliable plodders, and would rather choose the wayward spirit who can speedily master a complex brief, will be able to do so with still greater precision than before. All they need do is pick the students who exhibited the largest gap between their indifferent performance during the university course and their spectacular success in the examinations and the viva.