There was a time when degrees were decided on the basis of a set of exams taken over the course of a week or so, an academic decathlon, a trial by fire. One student might be on her third answer book in the first hour while another would do no more than write his name a dozen times before wandering out, lost to all but his own bewilderment. Today, things are less intimidating, degrees more likely to be a product of pick-and-mix grades, sometimes challenged on inventive if largely implausible grounds.
Those grades are now processed by computers, and degree classifications are in essence decided before final examiners’ meetings, which were once a source of violent disagreements. One chair of examiners suffered from diabetes and was liable to sudden bouts of rage until a Werther’s Original was discreetly passed down the table and balance restored. Pleas would be made on behalf of individual students with such passion that unworthy suspicions began to form. References would be made to “flashes of alpha”, a Higgs boson trace of brilliance on a paper of otherwise astonishing ineptitude, as if moments of random insight could redeem the damned, as surely, in our hearts, we must all hope they might do. Decisions made late in the meeting required the reopening of earlier cases so that candidates moved up and down the pass list like countries in the Eurovision Song Contest as votes come in from vacuously smiling, sycophantic presenters favouring contiguous countries.
Once, first-class degrees had the rarity of issue one of The Amazing Spider-man. Today, they are on the lower shelves. Nowadays, 2:2s are likely to provoke appeals by students who feel that they should have had a 2:1 on the L’Oréal grounds that they are worth it. Third-class degrees, at one time the source of perverse pride, are now as scarce as rhino horn, although without the supposed aphrodisiac effect.
So, three years on from the time the family car, a people carrier, first crossed the country to take sons and daughters to university, it is en route once again, this time empty. It will return full of burnt pans, rancid clothes, pieces of random technology and sons or daughters who have unaccountably acquired tattoos that must no more be mentioned than their disturbing air of abstraction. There had been feelings of pride and melancholy on the first journey, and so there are on this. For it marks the end of something, and endings are seldom without an element of regret, the people carrier now about to lose its function.
Dressed in their Sunday best, the parents park on a muddy field while the students are crocodiled, ready to cross the stage to receive their degrees, finding it more intimidating than being asked to rehearse the Albigensian heresy in a 9am seminar. To their surprise, the faculty have dressed themselves as for a pantomime, jeans and frayed shirts concealed beneath multicoloured robes – or is that just me?
Female graduands have opted for startlingly abbreviated skirts, while at least some of the men have settled for ties, in rebellion against Eton-educated politicians who have abandoned theirs to show solidarity with the masses rather than actually having to meet them.
And so the show begins as the parents get to see their daughters wobble across the stage on unaccustomed high heels, or their sons, in expensively hired gowns and still more expensively purchased trainers, amble like constipated bears towards their unplanned futures. They have seconds to focus their iPhone camera and catch the magic moment, capturing only a blur – but since it is their blur, it is never to be deleted. A student once produced from his sleeve a bunch of flowers, which he presented to the vice-chancellor. Another lit a cigar, imitating Groucho Marx. Today, there is a regrettable absence of such gestures.
The recipient of an honorary degree tells the students they can be anything they want to be so not to worry if they don’t get a regular job, the parents wondering what the £9,000 a year was for, then, and the registrar why he wasn’t briefed by someone.
Then it is off for the departmental photo, a snip at £25. In imitation of Americans, they throw their caps into the air as Ede & Ravenscroft representatives wince, before moving to a tent to eat an expensive strawberry or two and drink tepid white wine from a plastic glass. Apparently, you can buy a video of the whole event, and why not since this is for the grandchildren they will have if their offspring ever get a job that pays and abandon the strange young woman/man they seem to have partnered with at university and who, when they met them, smelled of something they couldn’t quite place or, more worryingly, could. Thereafter, it is goodbye to those who at later reunions will try to sell their friends life insurance or seek Kickstarter sponsorship for their round-the-world holidays for charity.
What was it all about, those university years? Perhaps they learned a thing or two in seminars and lectures. Maybe they discovered something about themselves. Mostly, it has little to do with anything mentioned in university rankings, student satisfaction being pursued, and sometimes achieved, in places and with people best not enquired into. It has to do with a certain licensed foolishness, with discovered talents and relationships that can withstand the passage of time, being picked up again decades later as if time itself had stood still – which, alas, they have yet to discover, it never does.
Meanwhile, plans are in place to induct the next generation of students, born implausibly recently, for whom everything is history and the future a green light across the bay, their parents already scanning the ads for a second-hand people carrier.
Christopher Bigsby is director of the Arthur Miller Centre and professor of American studies at the University of East Anglia.