Third-class degree dying out

September 5, 2003

The third-class degree, affectionately known as a Douglas Hurd after the former Conservative government minister, is on the verge of extinction - in particular at Cambridge University, Lord Hurd's alma mater.

Figures released last week show the proportion of Cambridge students awarded third-class degrees has plummeted over the past 43 years.

In 1960, 4,300 candidates sat honours exams, with 22 per cent being awarded thirds. But only 317 of this year's 10,016 finalists, or 3 per cent, got this degree classification.

Over the same period, the proportion of first-class and upper-second degrees awarded has more than doubled to 22 per cent and 50 per cent respectively.

Last year, Oxford University awarded just 1.6 per cent of its students thirds and this proportion is expected to go down again for this year's students.

Duncan McCallum, Cambridge's deputy academic secretary, said grade inflation was not a factor. "Our external examiners would tell us if our students were slipping in any way," he said. "They are better qualified than the students of 1960."

He offered three explanations:

  • Competition for places has increased massively since 1960, pushing up the quality of the candidates
  • Students are better taught and enjoy improved facilities compared with their predecessors
  • Having a first or upper second is critical for getting a good job so students perform better.

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency for the whole university sector reflect a similar trend.

In 2002, 6.5 per cent of degrees were classified as thirds or passes. Just seven years earlier, when sector-wide statistics were first collected, this proportion was more than double.

Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University, said the shift reflected the widening of the higher education sector.

"When only 5 per cent of the population went to university, they really were at the top end of the academic spectrum," he said.

"Now, with students with two Es at A level at other universities coming out with firsts and seconds, examiners at Oxford and Cambridge are thinking, 'people coming to us have all got three or four As so our degrees must be worth a bit more'."

He said thirds still had a place, particularly to signify that someone had the ability to get into university but chose to spend their time concentrating on other activities such as drama or sport.

Mantz Yorke, professor of higher education at Liverpool John Moores University, suggested: "Students know better what is required so they can get the marks."

He added that modular courses required students to achieve at least 40 per cent on each piece of work to pass. So their final degrees are less likely to include marks between 35 and 45 which would average 40 per cent and gain them a third. Even weaker students would be scoring closer to 50 per cent - a 2ii.

A spokesperson for the Quality Assurance Agency said: "There is no particular evidence that the reduction in the number of third-class honours degrees awarded reflects anything other than an improvement in the achievement of the student cohort."

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