In the early 80’s, most people who went to university and got an honours degree got a 2:2. In 2003, most got a 2:1 or a first. This is good news for the government, perhaps neutral for educationalists, and bad news for employers.
As an employer, I want to distinguish between job candidates who took their degrees in different years and from different universities, and perhaps in different subjects. I don’t want to have to be an expert on vintage years and best universities, as if I was selecting from a wine list. As it is, like most employers I look more carefully at where they got their degree, because most of us have some kind of notion of Oxbridge, Red-brick and New Universities. This is doubtless hugely unfair. But as I don’t have much confidence in the grading system, it’s the best I have to go on.
For educationalists, the point of the degree is the education, getting people to achieve their personal potential, making them more rounded people. The grade at the end is an unwelcome lottery, where every year some excellent students underachieve, and some people who have a talent for examination papers carry off unexpected laurels.
For the government, of course, a year on year improvement in results is just what the doctor ordered – except for the occasional times when people look back and realise that it is becoming comparatively easier to get a top degree.
It’s now generally agreed that the A-level system needs overhauling. Should we now face the same with degrees? Certainly we must do something – either peg degree results at some kind of gold standard, or give employers something more comprehensive to help them choose the right person for the right job.
To do that, of course, employers, government and educationalists are going to have to come to some kind of agreement about what degrees are for.