Standards of intelligence

A degree is no mark of genius, and we shouldn't expect it to be, says Alan Ryan

July 3, 2008

It's nice to see the usual complaints against the dumbing down of A levels directed towards university standards. If entry standards have dropped but the proportion of so-called good degrees awarded has risen, then either we have become very much better at teaching than we used to be or exit standards have dropped further than entry standards. It is unlikely that we teach better, when staff-to-student ratios have worsened and the demands of research productivity have increased, so the unhappy conclusion that good degrees aren't as good as they used to be looks inescapable.

In fact, it only looks inescapable because we think, superstitiously, that there are these entities called standards that have to be kept up. It's not obvious that there are. Consider the driving test. We could have driving tests that assessed us all against the standards set by Lewis Hamilton; if the pass mark were established by the ability to lap Silverstone within two seconds of his fastest time, about 99 per cent of us would fail. What driving tests in fact establish is that we can drive on crowded roads without threatening the lives and limbs of our fellow road users. Given how much better cars are today than they were 40 years ago, you need less mechanical skill to handle one safely than 40 years ago; but given how crowded the roads are, you probably need better peripheral vision and more attention to what's happening around you. Is the test "easier"? Yes and no in the usual way.

Apply the analogy to degrees and the answer writes itself. We could set examinations to discover how far most of us are from the intellectual achievements of, say, Stephen Hawking, and produce a failure rate of 99 per cent; or we could set examinations to assess whether students are capable of absorbing straightforward information and answering simple questions on what they have been told. If we do the latter, we shall find that 85 per cent get "good degrees". Plainly, we have done the latter. With the aid of the Quality Assurance Agency, which insists that examinations be wholly predictable and tailored to the lecture notes that have themselves been tailored to students who have spent years being taught to the test, we should surely get at least 85 per cent of our students good degrees. Nobody would think a driving school much cop if it had a lower success rate.

But do we knowingly give good degrees to bad students? It is surely true that if 85 per cent of students at one university get good degrees, there will be pressure on universities everywhere to award the same proportion. The reason is obvious. To go to university and emerge with something less than a good degree invites the question whether you are thick, idle or psychologically unfit for work. It's not a question you want a future employer to ask; so, you have good reason - especially if the answer to the question is "all of the above" - to extract a 2.1 from your teachers by any means possible.

As to the university, it's hard not to notice that league tables are constructed on the basis of good degrees awarded, and that both your faculty and your students would rather be at a higher-ranked institution than at a lower-ranked one. It's also a pain in the backside to spend more than the most minimal amount of time dealing with students, parents, and increasingly lawyers as well, hellbent on showing that but for a deplorable breach of the principles of natural justice and/or the Human Rights Act, the 2.2 that the student has been awarded as an act of kindness would have been a 2.1.

If the 2.1 is a pass in the driving test rather than evidence that your literary tastes are refined, your grip on advanced calculus secure and your prospects of a Nobel prize in later life pretty good, does it matter? Mostly no.

If you look at a dozen physics or chemistry students, half of whom will get firsts, and almost none of whom will go on to do research, it is easy to feel despondent; it seems a waste of all that intelligence if they don't crack a few more problems. But why should they? They have lives of their own to live; and they will make excellent lawyers, administrators, entrepreneurs, whatever. They've learnt the importance of the things on which successful science depends, and since most of those - accuracy, patience, clarity, imagination - are needed in the jobs they will go on to, they've had the education in transferable skills that we all want students to have.

But more than moderate cheerfulness would be excessive. I'd not trust a nurse who got a 2.1 only after the intervention of the lawyers to give me a non-lethal dose of whatever drugs I was supposed to be taking, any more than I'd trust an engineer who had been forgiven his inability to understand mathematics to design any bridge I might drive across. And even if most of us neither need nor are capable of acquiring more advanced driving skills than are measured by the driving test, or more advanced philosophical skills than are measured by a decent 2.1, we ought to retain some sense of the gulf between competence and genius and be properly respectful of what separates the Lewis Hamiltons and the Bertrand Russells from the rest of us.

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