Alan Ryan

September 9, 2005

This year's new undergraduates can expect a 2.1 for average diligence - but not for how to lead their own intellectual life

Now that the annual squabble about declining standards at A level and GCSE is safely behind us, we can affix our best smiles to our faces and get ready to welcome the incoming freshers. Academic life is rather like old-fashioned agriculture: no sooner do we bring in the harvest of our graduating students than we have to go out in the driving rain and cultivate the minds of their successors.

So, what shall we tell the freshers? That they will find their minds stretched and their imaginations kindled by work at degree level? Probably not. Twenty years of turning education into "course delivery" has turned degree-level work into an extension of A level, not so much in content as in pedagogy.

My colleagues insist that they are more efficient, meticulous and dedicated teachers than their predecessors, and this is quite true.

Their reading lists are up to date; their paperwork is tidy; they write reports and letters of recommendation on time; and, above all, they provide carefully constructed lecture handouts for their grateful students. They are very effective "course deliverers".

Now that we have student contracts, my colleagues are quite right to be punctilious because they might otherwise find themselves in front of Baroness Deech and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. But excellence in course delivery produces the familiar problem of grade compression: we save the worst from their own incapacity but we do too little for the best.

Students expect to get a 2.1. This is now the standard grade. And a consequence is that at many universities most of the firsts are excellent 2.1s and most of the 2.2s are poor 2.1s.

There is a reason for this. Students are mostly more anxious to avoid a 2.2 than they are to get a first, and effective course delivery can give them what they want. The key is the handout. Where students are taught in modules and collect a grade at the end of each term or semester, the good-natured lecturer will strike a bargain with the class.

He or she will provide meticulous handouts, students will remember them, and the examination or term paper will require students to tell the lecturer what the handouts have told them.

This is not the end of the world. It is what you do for GCSE and A level, and it is what you do at mid-level US universities. There is much to be said for it, morally speaking. After all, if an examination is not closely related to the instruction that students have had, it's not clear what we are testing other than a student's ability to divine what might be in the examiner's mind - unless, of course, what we expect of students is a sufficiently broad mastery of a subject that they can handle anything that an examiner might throw at them.

That's asking a lot.

Course delivery as it is practised has other interesting side-effects. Just as employers think that a GCSE grade below C is tantamount to a failure, universities think that students who get a 2.2 have "failed".

Since there is in principle the third class and a bare pass between the 2.2 and failure, that seems foolish; but it really isn't. Students have studied for A level in much the way they are being asked to study for a degree; so, if they can get into a university, they ought to be able to walk out the other end with a 2.1.

One reason for this is that even when examiners do not do it avowedly, they "grade on a curve". They spread their marks along a spectrum, expecting them to bunch around a median; and the median now appears to be mid-2.1.

Given the teaching students are exposed to and the grading habits of their teachers, it would be very surprising if this were not so.

Add to that the subtle - and not-so-subtle - pressures on departments and individuals alike to conform to the general expectations, and any individual who decides to defy convention is much more likely to be condemned as an incompetent teacher than praised for maintaining standards.

So the best 2.1s become firsts, the worst 2.1s are 2.2s, and anything below that is a disaster.

Hence, we can decently tell the freshers that with ordinary diligence they will get a decent 2.1, and that that will be enough to ensure that they secure the graduate premium appropriate to the sort of degree they have done and where they have done it.

As to finding out the limits of their own abilities, learning how to contradict their teachers and leading an intellectual life that is genuinely their own, that is something they will have to do somewhere else.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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