If IQ levels are dropping, why are there more first-class degrees?

Nada Kakabadse asks if tuition fees, degree standards or teaching methods are contributing to the mismatch in performance data

December 14, 2018

Any casual observer of international affairs, politics and media outputs may have already surmised that intelligence levels are in steady decline worldwide. Research from the UK, Norway, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Finland and Estonia all demonstrate a downward spiral in overall population IQ scores.

These studies also show that the IQ of siblings born in different years varies significantly and suggest that Western societies have lost 14 IQ points on average since the Victorian age.

The more modern decline is believed to have begun after the generation born in 1975, at which point the slow rise in intelligence observed over much of the 20th century came to an end.

In the UK, tests carried out in 1980 and 2008 show that the average 14-year-old was two IQ points smarter in 1980. Brighter teens who participated in the study in 2008 were, on average, less intelligent than their counterparts tested 28 years earlier.

Among those in the upper half of the intelligence scale, the group that has typically dominated are children from middle-class families. Still, their average IQ score was six points below their earlier counterparts.

These findings are worrying, regardless of whether they are the result of environmental changes or exposure to different intellectual experiences, such as the use of new technology, inadequate teaching methods or the growth in inequality that society is currently experiencing.

Despite all the evidence to suggest that society is, literally, dumbing down, the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that more than one in four UK students graduated from university with a first-class degree last year.

Data indicate that the share of graduates with the highest possible results rose by 44 per cent in the years between 2012 and 2017.

Three in four students making the grade also received an upper second (2:1) or above, while 26 per cent of graduates who completed their first undergraduate degree in the 2016-17 academic year achieved a first. In 2012-13, when the new higher tuition fees regime was introduced, 18 per cent received a first, while more than two-thirds achieved an upper second or 2:1 grade.

The big question now is, if society’s collective IQ is declining, how is it possible that awards of first-class degrees are on the rise? Is the attainment of a higher education qualification in the UK becoming easier? Or are higher fees producing better results?

Alternatively, perhaps our classification system has become outdated and is no longer fit for purpose. Or is it the marketisation of higher education that is responsible for this mismatch in performance data?

In truth, students have become repositioned as university clients and are more adept than ever at demanding more favourable results, without necessarily being exposed to the intellectual disciplines and challenges that stretch their development.

Students who fail to receive the marks that they feel they deserve, even when they clearly don’t, have no compunction about complaining. They pay premium fees to attend a premium university, and they have every expectation of receiving excellent results.

That this scenario is playing out during a time when universities desperately need students and when academic staff are feeling the pressure to deliver attractive and economically viable courses is no coincidence.

And it is important to recognise that students and the wider population are being exposed to an array of different intellectual experiences, including changes in technology and how intelligence is expressed. Educational methods must keep pace and adapt to reflect these developments.

There are no easy answers when it comes to balancing higher education standards against declining IQ scores and increasing “client” demands. This is a societal problem, and not something any single university can solve, but bringing the issue to the public to foster debate would be a valuable first step.

Ideally, universities would honestly examine the reality of their teaching standards and, by implication, the quality of their students.

Also, if each institution could transparently state the standards required to achieve a first-class degree, as well as the relevance of course programmes to the new digital economy, we could once again confidently champion the rigours and intellectualism of UK higher education.

Nada Kakabadse is a professor of policy, governance and ethics at Henley Business School, University of Reading.

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