A seconds thought

June 19, 2008

You report my conversation with The Sunday Times regarding my sense, which is backed by that newspaper's statistical analysis, that the 2:2 is becoming an endangered species ("The week in higher education", 12 June).

I spoke about the pressures that have brought this about: modular degrees and more continuous assessment; students who, on the one hand, are harder working and more results-oriented than their predecessors, but who, on the other - thanks to fees - are now more like consumers and more likely to challenge marks.

My principal points were that it is very strange to have a system with four divisions when the two lower ones are hardly ever used and that the preponderance of 2:1s is very hard on the near-miss first-class student who gets the same result as the low 2:1 student, who a generation ago would have been a 2:2.

I very much regret that my observation about league tables led the paper to imply that I was accusing the University of Liverpool of twisting the arms of lecturers to inflate grades. The pressure is in the Zeitgeist: it does not take the form of edicts from Senate House. After all, we academics are so contrary that if our masters hint at one course of action we are more likely to do the opposite.

The Sunday Times piece arose from my essay in Standpoint magazine, which was mainly about research funding. You make reference to this and cite a grossly distorted paraphrase by The Observer columnist Nick Cohen. My article (freely available online) made clear that the startling discrepancy between research assessment exercise results in English and French occurred in the 1996 exercise, when it was much remarked upon, whereas Cohen writes about it as if it were a more recent phenomenon.

Jonathan Bate, University of Warwick.

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