Don't just get a degree, get a life

May 20, 2005

Improving grades could signify that many students are working too hard, writes Kevin Fong. If so, this has worrying implications

Another academic year and the insanity of exam season is thankfully nearly at an end. This frantic period of shuffling to and fro is the storm before the summer calm. But when the last results have finally been given, the findings collated and this year's statistics published, the system of degree classification will inevitably find itself under scrutiny once again. There will be the usual cries of grade inflation, with the "It-was-never-like-this-in-the-good-old-days" club assembling for the annual grumble over pints of beer that used to cost less and taste better.

These days, more than half of all UK students gain first-class or upper second degree results. Now, the "When-life-was-easier-and-politicians-told-the-truth" brigade will have you believe that although the standard of undergraduate achievement is falling, marking standards are falling even faster. This, plus the usual snide comments suggesting that the degrees are no longer worth the paper they're written on, must be bruising to all but the most robust undergraduate ego.

But an alternative, more sinister possibility exists: that students are knuckling down, getting the grades and in the process taking life far too seriously. If this is so, we could be on the brink of a real crisis.

It is probably true that the days when you could skate out of college with a third-class degree and think that nobody would pay attention are gone.

The "Been to University" T-shirt alone apparently doesn't mean quite what it used to. And with students graduating with record levels of debt, never has there been such incentive for them to take their studies more seriously. But therein lies a danger. There is more to undergraduate teaching than turning out a long line of technically brilliant doppelgangers. Encouraging diversity and individuality - at least as important as the rapidly forgotten content of our syllabi - has always been part of the task.

Last year, a scoping group for Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals suggested that the existing system of degree classification had outlived its usefulness and hinted at a future in which, among other things, the value added by extracurricular aspects of courses might also be assessed.

So if the great anointed think that extracurricular activities should be more than something to snigger about, then maybe we should be doing more to encourage them.

We can all help. For example, avoid scheduling lectures on Wednesday afternoons to let the sports teams out to do battle, couch subject material in some sort of wider context, and nod to the fact that there is more to human existence than good grades.

It is of course a fine line. In a world where everything needs to be spelt out and ambiguity is not easily forgiven, get it wrong and before you can say carpe diem you're staring down a class who think you're running a tolerance zone for serial non-attenders.

But these skills are important. A seasoned professor of science once offered the following caveat to his new class of freshers: "Over the next three years, time will pass quickly. There is a new world of exciting experiences out there for you laced with opportunity and temptation. It is therefore imperative that you exercise caution and sound judgement for fear that, at the end of all your labours, you might leave this place with nothing more than a first-class degree."

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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