John McLellan: What is that First really worth?

Grade inflation calls into question the real value of the degree classification, writes John McLellan.
Glasgow University graduates celebrate  but is their joy likely to be short-lived away from the education treadmill? Picture: John DevlinGlasgow University graduates celebrate  but is their joy likely to be short-lived away from the education treadmill? Picture: John Devlin
Glasgow University graduates celebrate  but is their joy likely to be short-lived away from the education treadmill? Picture: John Devlin

It’s graduation season at universities across the country which for most students is the end of the education treadmill and entry into the full-time world of work. What’s not to celebrate?

In 1963 there were only 118,000 students at all British universities, but in 2017 34,830 applicants living in Scotland were admitted to Scottish universities in a total of over 230,000 in Scottish higher education. Approximately 160,000 are studying for a first degree, so at a rough estimate based on a four-year course, every year around that’s around 40,000 people with an excuse for a party right now. But to rain on their graduation parades this year, the think tank Reform has criticised British universities for the soaring number of first class and upper second degrees being awarded, with firsts doubling in the last ten years from 13 per cent to 26 and 2:1s now up to 49 per cent. Without a First in maths, that means only a quarter of students leave with a 2:2 or a Third, and 30,000 Scottish students with the top two classifications.

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Reform’s “A Degree of Uncertainty” report points out that up to the mid-90s there was virtually no degree inflation, with only about seven per cent of students graduating with a First. It blames a combination of cumulative calculations based on grades achieved during the length of the course and internal pressure to mark up borderline cases, and from my experience as a part-time academic at Stirling University there is more than a ring of truth in those claims. It singles out the University of West of Scotland, known to people of a certain age as Paisley Tech, for quadrupling its proportion of Firsts.

“When billions of pounds of taxpayer subsidies are being poured into universities each year it cannot be right that the public have no way of knowing at present when and where that investment is delivering high-quality provision and value for money,” concludes the report, with particular relevance to Scotland where free tuition contributes to a higher education budget of £1.8bn.

Value for money for the course itself may not be the top criteria for Scottish school-leavers considering higher education, and 94 per cent of them will choose a Scottish university, but value for time, eventual employability and living costs certainly are. Despite the claim from SNP MP Joanna Cherry that Scottish students leave “without a huge debt”, the latest Student Loans Company figures show this year’s Scottish graduates will owe £13,000 on average.

If prospective freshers aren’t so concerned, their parents certainly are, and from speaking to many at Stirling’s open day a fortnight ago it’s the real value of the degree in the outside world which is of greatest concern.

So what is the real value of the degree classification? It has always mattered in student peer groups and is key to qualification for postgraduate study, with research posts looking for a 2:1 minimum and the same for many pure learning courses.

The Scottish Funding Council this year reported record postgrad numbers entering Scottish Universities, up 21 per cent in the last ten years to about 13,000, so with universities putting a premium on attracting lucrative postgraduate students it’s in their interests to ensure the pool of customers is as deep as possible.

But what about the majority who have had enough of ivory towers? Every year we see students who have put everything into achieving a First but have to settle for a 2:1, but as a former employer I continually emphasise the need for a CV bulging with extra-curricular activities (and in journalism, a cuttings file) which goes way beyond the grades.

In the jobs queue, someone with a first or a 2:1 who has nothing but their degree to show for three or four years at university is behind those with a “Desmond” but a strong track record of wider achievement and engagement. And then there is often the hurdle of psychometric tests as well. Your First certificate might look good on the wall, but don’t expect much more.

Bright Futures?

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Some 35 per cent of all Scottish students now come from the most deprived areas, but the pressure is on the four “ancient” universities to take more than the 8.5 per cent they currently admit so Edinburgh has accelerated positive discrimination and is rejecting some straight A students because of background.

With the number of Scottish students strictly capped because the Scottish Government has to fund their tuition fees, hundreds of places are instead taken up by fee-paying students from England. This leads to the bizarre contradiction that Scottish universities are squeezing out middle class Scottish children in favour of fee-paying middle class English children and anecdotal evidence of private school pupils with spectacular exam results and strong extra-curricular achievements being rejected is commonplace.

The irony struck me as I read this story going through Lauriston where the streets were as usual teeming with George Heriot’s pupils right outside the old Royal Infirmary which Edinburgh University is converting into a home for its new Futures Institute. The kids in the blue blazers can justifiably ask whether the university’s future includes them.

Amongst the Institute’s lofty goals are “reinventing education” and “reshaping the fabric of society” and shunning well-qualified candidates because of their background, the university is on its way to achieving both.

Express delivery

A very different Desmond to Tutu is Richard Desmond, ex-proprietor of Express Newspapers, whose sale of the titles to Daily Mirror publisher Reach Plc was approved this week. The English editions of the Express and Daily Star featured prominently in a discussion in the Scottish Parliament this week about media influence on Islamophobia organised by Anas Sarwar MSP. With an audience of mixed gender and ages largely drawn from the Muslim community, it was at times an uncomfortable debate for the small group of white middle-aged, male media executives and many of the examples in the presentation were hard to defend, particularly those from the Express titles.

The discussion was hard-hitting for sure, but a positive set of actions was agreed which will hopefully bring about changes of real benefit to all concerned.

Although Reach chief executive Simon Fox has said there will be no political coming together of the Mirror and Express stables, it’s difficult to see the tone which marked the Express titles under the previous regime being tolerated.