The good, the bad and the difference

April 28, 2006

Much as he'd like to believe that the rash of first-class degrees reflects superb teaching, Tim Birkhead isn't convinced

Imagine the scene. Sauntering into your departmental coffee room, you are slightly taken aback to see the external examiners for your undergraduate degrees seated among your colleagues. They are the inquisition; the brain police and the ultimate authority over your questions, your marking, moderation and illegible musings. For a moment you'd forgotten they were coming but, no matter, you greet them cheerily:

"How's it going. then?"

"Great," they reply, "Your department has done very well again, everyone has got a first-class degree."

"Oh," you say, somewhat surprised, "That's remarkable."

"Yes, the standard of teaching, the quality of the exam questions and the students in this department are all exemplary."

"Everyone?" you ask, adding, "Don't you think there's a problem with that?"

"Yes, everyone, and no!" they insist, "You've done very well."

Preposterous? Possibly, probably - well, not really. It isn't so far from the truth in some departments. I know several degree courses where more than 85 per cent of students get an upper-second or a first-class degree.

The rise has been inexorable; give it another few years and this first-class fantasy will be a reality.

In my book this means departments are using a pretty blunt instrument to discriminate between the good, the bad and the truly illiterate.

Perhaps my hypothetical examiners are right, perhaps we have raised our teaching standards, but somehow I doubt that this could explain the increase in degree marks. The reality is that the prescriptive approach to teaching, and overgenerous marking, fails to discriminate and rewards mediocrity. Rather like those departments that have recently decided to ennoble all their staff with the title "professor", it devalues those who are more deserving. Worse, grade inflation deludes undergraduates into thinking they are much better than they are and, if employers take the degree classifications we award at face value, we are certainly well on the way to perdition. What amazes me is that while most academics recognise that giving everyone an upper-second or a first-class degree is blatant nonsense, they roll over and accept it. Their attitude is: if those in power want to play silly buggers with undergraduate degrees, let them. In the meantime, if you'll excuse me, I'm busy finishing my research assessment exercise submission.

One area where the failure of degree classifications to discriminate is most obvious is at the PhD interview. A colleague at another university told me how he had interviewed several students for a PhD place. On paper, the shortlisted candidates all looked fantastic and they all had first-class degrees. The reality at interview was very different, despite their identical qualifications. Their abilities spanned the entire continuum from no imagination, no preparation and no concept of what a PhD requires, to absolutely fabulous, smart, articulate and motivated. It isn't quite true that academics have done nothing to distinguish different undergraduate abilities. One thing they have done to circumvent the "everyone's a winner" approach is the four-year degree or a masters course.

Although these provide a top-up to the students' first-class degree, they are usually assessed as pass or fail, rather than graded. If we must give everyone a first, let us at least have the sense, good grace and decency to grade them. The starred first: 1*=71-80 per cent, 1**=81-90, 1***=91-100I and so on.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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