Yet again, universities are under the spotlight for their admission processes. On the one hand, of course we need to do all we can to get under-represented groups into our elite universities. Alternatively, we could enquire as to why it is so important that they get into these universities in the first place. I’d[i] argue that this is largely because educational achievement is unmeasured at the end of degrees and so name of university attended is still acting as a (poor) signal of IQ/knowledge/effort [delete as appropriate] to employers.
One of the many reasons for this is that degree class inflation is out-of-control, with places such as the University of Surrey now awarding a first-class degree to over 40% of their students. Degree classifications clearly no longer reflect genuine attainment, either for cohorts passing through the system in different years or indeed across different institutions.
The consequence is that young people are hugely incentivised to apply to highly-selective courses, rather than ones with high quality teaching. For this is the only way they can signal their intellect in the labour market. For this reason, incidentally, the TEF alone cannot degrade the market quality of an LSE degree.
We could fix all these problems by introducing a common core examination in all degree subjects, set externally by learned societies. All students would sit them, say, two-thirds of the way through their degree, thus allowing specialised final year examinations to continue. Performance in this exam, by subject, would determine the number of first-class, upper-second, lower-second and third-class degrees the department is allowed to award that year. It would not determine the degree-class of the student.
Agreeing a common core of the curriculum would be more controversial in some subjects than in others. We should try this first in subjects where this is not controversial: the sciences, maths, economics, and so on.[ii]
This degree design would still leave the majority of time free for esoteric topics, set by a university (e.g. 50% of the first two years and 100% of the final year), who could choose to combine papers into a degree classification in any way it chooses. It would simply be restricted in the proportion of different classifications it could award, based on the common exam results.
The alternative is that we introduce some sort of IQ-style SAT entrance examination that in turn determines how degrees can be set. But this does not incentivise universities to ensure that students are learning anything.
Establishing robust and comparable degree classification will help fix the extraordinary stratification of universities in the eyes of employers. Getting into Oxbridge rather than, say, Nottingham undoubtedly gives people an easy ride in the labour market. As someone who got one of these free passes to pretend I am clever I used to think this was justified. I changed my mind when I had the chance to interview 17 year-olds myself.
A decade or so ago I was roped into interviewing for undergraduates at an Oxbridge college, not because anyone particularly valued my opinion but more because newspaper scandals meant the college didn’t want Fellows interviewing alone. The experience completely revolutionised my view that university admissions were efficiently selecting students by ability.
We handed out about seven offers in the subject in each of the three years I helped out. Three were given to candidates who performed exceptionally well at interview and had great AS point scores; the other four were given rather arbitrarily from a long list of over a dozen candidates who did well at interview and on paper. I could see the consequences of the offers we made because I supervised first year students. Those who performed exceptionally well at interview often didn’t seem to turn out to be genuinely interested and motivated by their subject. The interview didn’t help those from disadvantaged backgrounds, in my experience, who clearly hadn’t been prepared. And the ‘thinking skills’ test that we introduced during the time I interviewed was clearly not tutor-proof; we observed striking mark inflation as it moved from a pilot to a known-test with companies offering preparation.
There are weak students studying at Oxbridge; there are outstanding students studying at Nottingham. The latter group, even if they are awarded a first, find it much harder to signal their talent to the employers who understandably place little store by degree classification. If we ensured genuine comparability in achievement across universities then university attended needn’t act as a signal for anything at all.
[i] Well, technically most of this argument comes from a conversation with a very smart man who is not in the position to make these arguments publicly at the moment!
[ii] The question of how degrees should be awarded across subjects is a question for another time, but one that is debated frequently by school examination boards. Essentially, there are principles that can be applied to achieve this where subjects have similar academic characteristics; deciding the national degree awarding proportions is almost impossible for art, music, nursing and so on. School examination boards also deal with questions about how to maintain comparability over time, etc…