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Value of First Class Degrees


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A report published today claims that 10.3% of all students gained a first class degree last year. Four years ago it was only 7.8%. The proportion gaining first or upper second degrees is now 53%. Ten years ago it was only 25%.

When one considers that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of graduate students (if all things remained the same one would expect a decline in the percentage of people gaining first and upper second degrees) this is an amazing achievement.

Can the government claim that this is the result of improving academic standards or is it just a case of grade inflation. If so, does this mean that employers will consider a first class degree achieved ten years ago as meaning more than one achieved under Tony Blair’s government.

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Until such times that all Universities offer the same courses and the same examinations, and apply the same assessment criteria as one another there is almost no way of comparing the 'quality' of degrees from one establishment to another.

I believe that employers are increasingly confused about the value of degrees, and this has possibly been as a result of so many of the Polytechnics being re-designated as Universities. Traditionally the Polytechnics offered more vocational courses whilst the Universities were offering academic qualifications. The result of redesignation is that everyone in higher education apparently is achieving the same sort and level of qualification! What nonsense.

Unfortunately I suspect that employers will become increasingly mistrustful of 'degrees' as Universities compete for students to fill courses and standards expected of them fall. In the end a 'degree' will be worth very little. I certainly believe that there is a case for suspecting that grade inflation is rife - it makes (some) Universities look better so they attract more/better students. This is only an extension of what is happening in our schools, of course, so should we be surprised?

The question needs to be asked as to why is it we currently find overseas students so keen to study at our Universities - particularly at Oxford and Cambridge and the red brick Universities? Quality is surely the name of the game here. The government should be very careful that quality and rigour are maintained, and that quantity should be of secondary importance.

Edited by Maggie Jarvis
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Maggie writes:

Until such times that all Universities offer the same courses and the same examinations, and apply the same assessment criteria as one another there is almost no way of comparing the 'quality' of degrees from one establishment to another.

This is not quite true. University examination papers are moderated by external examiners from other universities, and examination scripts produced by the students are scrutinised by external examiners. Right at this moment I am working through a pile of scripts in my role as an external examiner for a British university, and early next week I shall be attending the exam board that awards the final degrees. I am not aware that the university in question awards a high percentage of first class degrees, and this is true of the other three univesities for which I have worked as an external examiner. Standards are pretty much the same across the four universities for which I have worked.

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Thank you for the information Graham. Are you saying that this is actually happening right across the board though? I have serious doubts.

Examples that might be worth mentioning are regarding graduates known to me personally - three from Oxford (not Brookes!) who achieved 2.1's and 2.2's in mathematics and geology. Each of these (state school) students gained 4 or 5 A levels (at grade A) in sciences and mathematics. Two other (state school) students who achieved firsts in theatre studies and business at ex -polys managed 3 A levels apiece at C and D grades.

I know there are all kinds of reasons that might be cited for the differences in the apparent achievement of these students, but being a professional in the 'education business' I look at the evidence from my own experiences and stand by my view that there is significant variation of standards between 'degrees'.

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Even within established universities standards are changing. For example, when I graduated from Oxford in 1997 only three Geology students gained firsts (out of a class of 30). Last year 10 students gained firsts (out of the same class size). It could be that students are miraculously becoming brighter, or it could be that tradionally a higher percentage of students gained firsts in Chemistry and physics and so the Earth Sciences applications were dwindling so they changed the grade boundaries to redress the balance.

The message they are now sending is 'come and study Earth sciences and you are more likely to get a first', and I think that message is being sent out by other universities too.

Rowena

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