Kirsty Gunn: How can so many be first class when we live in an upper-second world?

Photographer Ian Georgeson, 07921 567360
Graduation listings in TS on Monday and Tuesday..
Saturday 25 June 2016, 11am coming outside about 12.15-12.30pm
Edinburgh College of Art (ESALA and School of Art)
School of Divinity
Saturday 25 June 2016, 3pm coming out 4.00-4.15pm
Edinburgh College of Art (Schools of: Design; History of Art; and Reid School of Music)
School of Economics
Photographer Ian Georgeson, 07921 567360 Graduation listings in TS on Monday and Tuesday.. Saturday 25 June 2016, 11am coming outside about 12.15-12.30pm Edinburgh College of Art (ESALA and School of Art) School of Divinity Saturday 25 June 2016, 3pm coming out 4.00-4.15pm Edinburgh College of Art (Schools of: Design; History of Art; and Reid School of Music) School of Economics
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This time of year, with exam results on the way, the newspapers and radio will start their stories about happy or not so happy teenagers. Pictures of gangs of girls clutching their Highers results and smiling wide for the camera are offset by terrible sounding statistics about falling literacy rates and lower than ever results nationwide compared to international averages and those grades achieved in Asia. Or, and on the very opposite end of the scale – and a hot subject at the moment in the university sector – there are the headlines about overall pass rates rising at an unprecedented level and crazy inflations of grades, especially at the top end of award classes. Is an A still an A? That’s the question parents and students might be asking themselves as the new academic year shows itself on the horizon. Is passing or not passing the same as it used to be?

For sure, the whole subject has got us into a confused mess. Are the so-called “soft subjects” ( and I hate the way some Humanities’ disciplines have allowed themselves to be described thus) ruling the roost in the statistics tables and giving everyone an unrealistic idea of what a good grade is? Or are we, overall, educating to a much lower standard – and this applies across the primary, secondary and tertiary bands – and only calling it a tip-top result because of the terrible tyranny of the league tables?

Certainly, it’s true that there are more first class degrees about now than ever before – from the lauded Oxbridge/Russell Group institutions to the newer universities which are supposedly easier to get into. So that’s something to think about, right there. The University of Surrey gave firsts to a record 41 per cent of students last year, more than double the amount of those awarded five years ago. And here in Scotland, in a mix of old and new and in-between the two, Aberdeen, Stirling and Dundee, where I teach, are now in the top 20 of all UK universities awarding the highest number of firsts – as was reported in this paper last week, quoting the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, Nick Hillman who confirmed that issues such as university rankings may be fuelling “grade inflation”.

Then there’s the latest Press Association survey, overseeing the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s figures, indicating that it is now more common to graduate with a first class degree than a lower second grade . . . At which point we might want to stop and take a breath. Because – and students, just like their parents are aware of this, even though they may not want to be aware of it – the fact of the matter is that a First, like an A, or an A*, means excellent. And excellent is amazing. Because what excellent means is that it stands outside the rest, that it’s more unusual than the norm, that it’s ’s rare.

Being beyond the standard achieved by most, being more than very good, or even very, very good – that’s what As and A*s and Firsts are all about. They’re the sort of qualities that make excellent excellent. Yet here we have the HESA’s figures showing 24 per cent of students getting a first class degree last year, compared, relatively, with that traditionally most capacious degree band, the upper and lower second which has narrowed down to about 51 per cent and 21 per cent respectively.

So yes, all this is a bit strange, isn’t it? Because life, in general, as we well know, tends more towards the quotidian, the everyday, the upper-or-lower-second kind of experience – on average, I mean – than it does towards the first class treatment. Not to say that any of us don’t enjoy a bit of first class action if we can manage it . . . But for it to become a norm? To be expected? For it to represent about a quarter of overall achievement, and in the case of some institutions as much as a third?

On the other hand, I am also fully aware that, for example, at Dundee we work harder than ever to retain students who may be worried about failing and to support those who have overwhelming personal issues that would have otherwise caused them to leave. And I also know that our entry requirements have gone up, and that, for my own part, I am now receiving an increasing number of letters and emails with every academic year, from students who are devastated that they have not made it onto our Creative Writing and English programme here, though they’ve had offers from other prestigious institutions. All these things have an impact, of course. And in addition I am also aware that we are doing a jolly good job, we worker bees in the hives of education – despite the cuts, the increasing bureaucracy, the shocking proliferation of short-term contract teaching, and the yawning pay gaps between top managers and their PR gurus and all the rest of the university employees still toiling away at the coalface. We who teach are committed to teaching after all.

But it’s one thing to know our students are in good hands and that we have high expectations for them. But for a great chunk of them to leave with laurels wrapped around their tousled heads? That makes me think something else is up. Something that’s to do with the confluence of political ambition and university funding and how we must do what we’re told, after all.

Think , too, back to the early New Labour years and Tony Blair’s education promise actually being as much about getting young people off the unemployment register as it was about expanding their horizons. For the numbers rather give it away, don’t they? “In 1994”, I tell my students, when they come clamouring at my door asking for A marks on their papers, “before Universities were turned into business operations only seven per cent of students received first class degrees.” As the Americans say, I might tell them, Go figure.