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Edward Bromhead: Firsts ain’t wot they used t’be – in our dumbed down universities


Last weekend, another blogger (Capitalists@Work) had a rant about university degrees. Apparently, and I haven’t checked his figures, 19 per cent of candidates get firsts and 70 per cent an upper second, because a 2:2 or lower is essentially worthless. A very long time ago, when 5 per cent of the eligible population (baby boomers all) took degrees, a first was the exception, so that now nearly half the eligible population take degrees, the holder of a first is about as common as a graduate was back then around a half century ago.

Some, but by no means all, of the increase has been an uplift in the number of female students taking up ‘traditionally male’ subjects. When I started work in a polytechnic engineering department, for instance, there was one female student. As the years passed, although in general the number of female students rose, it never reached 50 per cent, and early on, there were some years when there were none. I’d previously worked for an organisation that employed a thousand engineers, and I was there when they recruited their first ever female.

There is an argument that higher education (HE) has been dumbed down, and you can dumb anything down if you try hard enough. One way to do it is simply to recruit less able students, and another is to give them less tuition – fewer hours, less demanding assessments, fewer laboratory sessions, fewer field courses, fewer things for which they get a mark. Less tuition can also take the form of fewer weeks per year, or fewer hours per week. You can set easier examinations, mark them more leniently, and then adjust the criteria for ‘pass’ or any grade you care to name. You can also recruit such large cohorts that individual students get less individual attention. Trust me, I’ve seen all of these done, not only in the institution in which I worked, but in all six where I was an external examiner.

There is an element to this that is driven by numbers:numbers of ‘bums on seats’ (and please, do a search on the internet for ‘the University of Bums on Seats’, you may be amused), numbers of staff, and indeed, such factors as the capacity of a laboratory. One problem I had was fittingstudents in for laboratory sessions in a teaching lab with a safe capacity of 24. Decades ago, there weren’t such things as safe capacities, but anyway, one might take six sessions to do six experiments with the lab capacity matching the student numbers. Raise the number of students to 48, and for them to get the same experience the staff effort doubles – by the time one is up to about 150 students, there isn’t time for the technicians to make ready the lab between sessions. Then, you have to fit it into a term or semester, and some of the work becomes meaningless as it has to be done before the theory has been covered. Does the provision suffer, is it dumbed down? Too right it is.

Then, you get the lad who turns up outside the rota, say on a Thursday afternoon. “I couldn’t come on Tuesday morning.” Enquiry reveals he was at the mosque. “Why can’t I do it now?” You just know he isn’t going to be satisfied with the answer that there are already 24 in the lab, and if you aren’t lucky he’ll complain that you are racist because you should know he has to be on his knees at that time and day. It could equally be that he was stacking shelves in a supermarket. I could continue in like vein, except that sometimes the numbers work out, so with 75 students on a field course you definitely need 2 buses and they won’t be packed, but 50 all fit on one bus that after a day in the field in the rain has a definite smell of ‘wet dog’ (or worse).

You also get students ‘gaming’ what they do and what they learn. A face pokes round your door when you’ve had enough for the day. “Sir,” (they are always the politest), “Sir, Does it matter if I don’t do such-and-such an assignment, because it is only worth one per cent of the module, even if I get 100 per cent for it.” Even worse: “I don’t come to your lecture at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning, because it’s too far to travel then. But I’ve engaged a private tutor from XXX University and I’ve downloaded all your powerpoints for your lectures.”

Well, there’s no sensible answer to the former, except to point out that knowledge of the subject is never wasted and in construction may even one day keep you alive, but for the second, there is (no matter how august XXX University is), and it is, “But I know something he doesn’t, and that is what is in your exam, and who is going to mark it!”

Fortunately, the construction industry has jobs for all sorts (it was a civil engineering department) and the ability to get up early in the morning, trudge around in high visibility kit with a hard hat usually beatsproficiency with Bessel Functions of the Second Kind in the field of employment. As to whether the debt is worth it; the tuition fees are the cost of a new family saloon car, the living expenses are likely to be incurred anyway (everyone eats and drinks, and travels to whatever they do – study, work, or deal drugs on a street corner) although if one works the living costs are likely to be offset against some form of income, and the tuition fee debt equivalent provides a real car not a virtual one.

Mostly, however, the possession of a degree in a reasonable subject is not the guarantee of a brilliantly well-paid job, but it gets you a chance of a job that is somewhat more comfortable, interesting and less hazardous than not, although this is a generalisation, and may not apply inspecific cases. Perhaps it is unsurprising, therefore, that no-one seems towant the national certificates and diplomas that used to be a great way into the professions for many young people – they don’t carry the same social cachet as a degree.

As to whether or not a first is a good thing, I have my doubts. One organisation I worked for demanded a first when they were hard to come by, and yet it was badly-run and its systems directly led to the death of many workers on site. Worse still, gaining a first from a university that is low down in the pecking order will, almost certainly, bring you into conflict with someone who only got a third from some place higher up, and who will immediately dedicate himself (it’s usually a bloke) to demonstrating that his third is in fact, better than your first. “Ha, so you can’t solve this with a Fourier Integral? God, what are they teaching where you studied?” Meanwhile, you check the fall (slope) of a sewer pipe in a deep trench, your hi-vis covered in mud, using an instrument that a twelve-year old could be trained to use, while he holds the equivalent of two sticks nailed together because henever mastered the use of this particular instrument himself.

Finally, there are also unforeseen side effects, above and beyond the simple one of devaluing degrees. One of them is that professional institutions that were once happy to accept graduates with any class of degree after 3 academic years of study now require 4, and don’t accept non-honours degrees. Another is that women who have two or more degrees in their maidenname may be less willing to adopt their husband’s surname on marriage, because the name on their degrees is different. I am neutral as to whether this is a good or bad thing, but it goes contrary to hundreds of years of tradition, may give an increasing number of children the double-barrelled surname that used to be a sign of bastardy, and will make the work of future genealogists harder!

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Prof Eddie Bromhead
Prof Eddie Bromhead
Eddie Bromhead is a former Professor of Geotechnical Engineering at Kingston University. Since retiring, he has continued to take part in professional and academic research activities, in the UK and abroad.

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