Leading Article: When job-hunters go a degree too far

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WITH gentle understatement, the University of Cambridge traditionally awarded those who failed to make the grade in final examinations a 'special' degree, academically located in the nether-world somewhere below a Third and testimony to three or four years passed in languid imitation of the youthful Byron. The common room still chortles at the apocryphal tale of a tweedy young layabout in possession of a cut-glass accent and a 'special' who set off for America to find himself granted immediate tenure at a Midwestern college on the basis of his distinguished academic achievements.

The issue was one of trust. In an era when character was judged more important than brains, even at Cambridge, a gentleman's word on the matter of his achievements was never doubted. At a time when most members of the ruling order knew one another by family, college or regiment, it seemed unnecessary. Although it is a long time since applicants to the diplomatic service were accepted only if they were personally known to the Secretary of State and enjoyed a private income of pounds 400 a year, the professional classes still operate on an assumption of trust.

If such airy innocence now provokes surprise, it is testimony to the speed with which our own standards have changed. The Institute of Manpower Studies today reports that it has become common for those crowding into the middle-class job market to enhance, and, if necessary, invent qualifications on their application forms, secure in the knowledge that such details are rarely followed up.

Following recent cases in which fraudulent medical staff have been exposed, the public can hardly be relieved to know that doctors are obliged to register with the General Medical Council. Some of the new professions, such as airline pilots, are better regulated. But the quality of the older professions remains uneven. Restriction of entry has more to do with self-interest than efficiency. Beyond that, however, definitions blur. There are historians who trade Japanese warrants in the City, linguists who run government offices. In these cases, the degree is the entry ticket. As on the railways, it should be checked.

Self-righteousness aside, what of the truths that examiners are not omniscient, examinations themselves often an unfair test of ability on the day and the judgement of dissertations a highly subjective exercise?

There is also the tale of the brilliant Cambridge orientalist, never happier than when deciphering ancient texts, rarely more miserable than when obliged to fulfil the dull duty of his degree tripos. Confronted with a paper at the end of a course in Syriac, he wrote that he could not accept the intellectual premise of question 1, that 2 and 3 were at odds with reason but that he would, however, answer 4, which he did with panache. He failed. Perhaps he has a future in Japanese warrants.