For equality, apply gold standard to all

June 16, 2006

The worth of a degree should not be judged by institutional prejudice

A friend of mine noted that the best way to avoid being chatted up by a "boatie" in Cambridge was to mention that you attended Anglia Ruskin University. Notwithstanding what this tells you about the discerning young men who attend "Cambridge proper", the sentiment behind this is more far-reaching than whether you are considered to have an intellectual capacity worthy of a one-night stand.

We're used to the tiresome debate over whether GCSEs and A levels have become easier. It hit the big time with those pseudo-sociological Channel 4 documentaries where hapless 15-year-olds were made to sit O levels under the guidance of disciplinarian teachers with horn-rimmed spectacles. I especially liked the one where parents took AS levels, competing with their offspring in a sort of intellectualised version of The Generation Game .

I always drew comfort from the us-and-them nature of the argument over qualifications at school. Sixth-formers everywhere were united by the knowledge that they were working hard on their A levels and that you couldn't pass a GNVQ just by spelling your name correctly. Congratulations on results day were heartfelt and pleasantly egalitarian.

Not so when you come to do a degree. Charges of inadequacy can come from your oldest chums. The interaction between students of different universities is not so much rivalry as suspicion. On occasion, I've been guilty of letting it extend to snobbery. "I can't explain to you how much work you have to do to get a 2:1 from Cambridge," I sighed with alarming self-importance to a friend when she told me about her first from another, incidentally very good, university. She forgave me because the dynamic between students (to continue the TV theme) is a bit like that sketch with John Cleese and the Two Ronnies: her institution was a Barker rather than a Corbett so she could look down on someone too.

The advisedness of introducing top-up fees was questioned, partly due to the danger of creating a tiered university system - as though one doesn't already exist. The only solution I can conceive of is to rigorously standardise degree examinations - even if this necessitates moving away from the traditional "first to third" classification system.

We need to bridge the gap between the two-essays-a-week brigade and the I-never-get-out-of-bed-before-2pm posse. It is vital that we get everyone on to the same scale so that how much we value one another's achievements isn't dependent on some subjective, prejudiced impression of which universities are tough (read good) and which are soft (bad).

There's a real danger, as the number of universities and students increase, of generating a poisonous intellectual hierarchy, at the top of which resides a self-styled, self-appointed elite, for if the experience mentioned at the beginning is the norm, we could be breeding the new aristocracy. And they're not very nice.

Natalie Whitty is studying social and political sciences at Cambridge University.

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