University degrees: our arcane system of firsts, seconds and thirds – Andrew McGettigan in the Guardian

Andrew McGettigan, author of The Great University Gamble (Pluto, forthcoming, 2013), has written a piece for the Guardian‘s Comment is Free this morning. McGettigan argues that while the number of first-class degrees is rising, if we care about standards we must analyse the pressures around accreditation.

We’ve reproduced an extract of the article below, however for the full piece, check out the Guardian, here.

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The Higher Education Statistics Agency recently published its annual overview of enrolments and qualifications achieved at UK universities and colleges. A breakdown of undergraduate results for 2010/11 showed that 16% of candidates now achieve first-class honours. The numbers graduating with the highest degree classification are now double what they were a decade ago. Immediate, superficial responses see yet another example of “dumbing down”, but the changes are not that straightforward and these criticisms avoid tackling bigger issues about the place of higher education within British society.

The difficulties can be illustrated by two anecdotes. In the final stages of preparing for my own undergraduate exams, I came across some advice in a letter from a senior academic to a promising candidate: one had to be “glib”. The purpose of the essay papers was best tackled by articulating a clear, informed, but partial take on the questions to hand, not by demonstrating the full extent of one’s learning. I shared this finding with a fellow student, who with a withering look labelled me a philistine who was reducing the culminating experience of our time at the university to “passing a test”.

At another elite institution 20 years ago, the departments of, let’s say physics and history, had different approaches to degree classification. Physics totted up the examination scores across all papers and ranked the candidates; those in the top half achieved 2:1 degrees and above, those in the bottom half, 2:2s and below. In history the large majority of candidates achieved a 2:1 and the other classes combined made up a third of the degrees. History did not use ranking and instead relied on standard levels of achievement dividing up the cohort.

Given that this was one of the most selective universities in the country, the physics students had a right to feel aggrieved that they were being ranked against an extremely strong set of students and that the same 2:2 examination performance might have received a better result elsewhere.

To read the rest of the article, go to the Guardianhere.

The Great University Gamble

Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education

Andrew McGettigan

A critical and deeply informed survey of the brave new world of UK Higher Education emerging from government cuts and market-driven reforms.

“Andrew McGettigan is in my opinion by far the most knowledgeable person in the country on the government’s obscure and yet revolutionary programme of change for universities. He provides us with a full and independent view of the short, medium and longer-term implications of the government’s plans. This book is essential and deeply worrying reading.” – Simon Szreter, Professor of History and Public Policy, University of Cambridge

“Andrew McGettigan is one of the most respected and incisive commentators on higher education. There are no other texts at present that address the political economy of higher education and none that put all the pieces of the jigsaw together to reveal the picture with such clarity.” – John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Nottingham, co-founder of the Campaign for the Public University and editor of A Manifesto for the Public University (2011)

£16.99 only £15.00 on the Pluto site

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