Catherine Belsey looks back to a time of assessment high priests and magical league tables...
Documentary evidence is beginning to emerge of certain obscure rituals practised by our ancestors at the beginning of the 21st century. It is difficult to be sure at this distance of time quite how the British of that epoch accounted for the curious propensity of their universities to conduct events called Examiners' Meetings in the high summer of each year.
These meetings were held all over the country. All examiners, which is to say virtually all members of the department in question, were required to be present. Others, known as "external examiners", often authorities in their fields, with what must have been some sort of priestly role in the ceremonies, commonly travelled long distances to attend the meetings. Dress was often more formal than usual, especially for the external examiners who were highly venerated, and whose judgements were commonly decisive in the resolutions reached.
These groups of academics were assembled for the classification of undergraduate degrees. All scripts had by then been marked, and the primary object of the meeting was to reduce the run of marks allotted to individual students, which ranged between perhaps six or eight in the old universities and 16 or even 24 in the newer ones, to a single class that would then indicate, to employers and others, the precise level of the student's intellectual ability and consequent value to the community. There were effectively four of these classes, known respectively as 1st, 2:1, 2:2 and 3rd.
Historians are puzzled by the late survival of this custom of classification, which originally dated from a time when candidates' performance on individual scripts was treated as a dark secret, to be confided to the students themselves, if at all, in private. By 2000, most universities disclosed all marks to students, who were generally provided with transcripts of their performances. Inevitably, these were a good deal more informative than the reductive classification into four groups. Particular strengths and weaknesses were tabulated and progress was charted.
In view of these obvious advantages, the question for modern historians is why the universities maintained the classification process, which took many hours at a time, when academics were variously disposed either to begin their research or to go on holiday. The mystery deepens when we discover that, by this stage, "quality" routines had largely eliminated the element of judgement in the determination of the classes. Long gone were the days when groups of like-minded dons pored over strings of esoteric symbols, which might or might not be held to point to "a first-class mind". In those days, extensive initiation was required as preparation for intuiting the full implications of a run of marks of the character "beta plus query plus, with just a touch of alpha".
By our period, almost all universities were using numbers to grade scripts, while the allocation of classes had become largely a matter of arithmetic, and often of simple averaging. Only a very limited area of discretion usually remained to the examining boards.
There were already early signs of dissatisfaction with the classification system. It was not only students who demanded more detailed information. The Arts and Humanities Research Board, which in those days provided graduate studentships for individual students rather than allocating a number to a department, recognised that the classes were not sufficiently differential, and required universities to subdivide the first class into three categories, and the 2:1 class into five. They also asked for transcripts. Why then, was the elaborate reduction process maintained?
One possible explanation involves an institution known as the Quality Assurance Agency. This agency was evidently set up for purely rhetorical purposes: to assure the community that all was well, while unfortunately ensuring nothing of the kind. It was highly unpopular as it was seen as designed to increase the already overwhelming burden of bureaucracy in the universities themselves. One area, however, where it was felt that the agency might usefully intervene was in the range of marking systems used in different universities.
At that time, transcripts were not standardised. While many universities drew lines between the classes at 50, 60 or 70, others preferred to use 55, 65 and 75 to indicate the same levels of achievement. Some employed the full range of marks between one and 100, commonly awarding marks of 95, while others regarded all marks over 75 with deep suspicion. Others used an entirely different mark scale, taking 17 as their highest indicator of success. In these circumstances, employers would need to learn to read each transcript individually.
What was urgently required was a standard system of recording achievement, so that, on the basis of a very little experience, the standard of all transcripts would be immediately understood.
But it is my hypothesis that the real reason for continued classification lies elsewhere. The early years of the 21st century were the great age of league tables, which were generally invested with magical powers. At this time, our ancestors seem to have been reluctant to commit themselves to any kind of judgement without the support of a league table. Governments, it appears, were unwilling to allocate funds, students were apparently incapable of choosing courses, and universities were seemingly unable to assess their own worth, without the recurrent compilation of results. More complex records of students' achievements would unduly complicate the tabulation of these results. I am therefore inclined to conclude that the classification system was maintained in order to supply raw material for the league tables.
If so, we should look back on this era as one of radical cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, a new respect for students resulted in their treatment as consumers or customers. Departments were accordingly required to issue large numbers of documents defining students' opportunities and rights. At the same time, however, students' real long-term interests in having their capabilities more sharply and informatively distinguished were sacrificed to the construction and reinforcement of competition between departments and institutions.
The league tables were sustained on the basis of crude classifications that, though they consumed much valuable academic time each year, had the effect of saving all concerned the effort of giving any subsequent consideration to the difficult process of judging real quality.
Catherine Belsey chairs the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at Cardiff University.
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