Article about the degree grading system

The Times, May 18, 2000, plus comments.




          Traditional first, second and third class degree gradings should be scrapped because they are misleading, the head of the university standards watchdog said yesterday.


          Vice chancellors recommended last week that school-style records of achievement should be issued for all students to run alongside the classification system, but John Randall wants them to go a stage further and abandon the existing system altogether…." I would like to see a transcript of achievement," Mr Randall said. " An awful lot of people in the universities want to get rid of the degree classification…


          Last week the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals agreed to urge every university to follow Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle in compiling records of achievement for students.


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A terrifying development, but only to be expected. There has been for a long time an urge to conflate still further the process of supposed 'preparation' for exams in collectivist situations and under the control of collectively appointed supervision with actually reaching a certain standard in an exam which can be prepared for autonomously.


What is really needed is an absolute separation of these two factors. If the existing universities are going to abandon it altogether, the need is all the clearer for a new and independent university. I would be happy to supervise its operations as Vice Chancellor for a suitable salary or consultancy fee, and I am sure that employers would soon come to welcome the functionality of its graduates.


" An awful lot of people in universities want to get rid of the degree classification"? Well, of course they do. All the more power to the tutors to decide how successful their students should be, and most tutors, in my experience, are power-crazed sadists. They have to be, to get any satisfaction out of teaching in a modern university.


This is another blow against innate ability, because even if there is a statistical balance between those who underperform and those who do better than expected under exam conditions, it is only those with very high IQ's who may be able, other factors being sufficiently favourable, to do extremely well by working at the eleventh hour.


I was in that category myself, so it was always possible that I might be able to save my bacon at the last moment but as it turned out I was not able to.  The fact that I was not owed a lot to the grotesquely prolonged periods of supervised 'preparation' which had been accompanied by highly skilled aversion therapy, designed (whether consciously or not) to make it maximally difficult to wish to do any work required of one by a tutor, or to wish to take an exam at the end which would be marked by people with a psychological outlook similar to that of the teachers and tutors one had known.


It was not the taking of the exam that caused the stress but the cumulative effect of the enforced social interactions that had gone into the long-drawn out build-up to it, in which was certainly included the stress of realising that all concerned wanted the outcome of this exam to have an irrevocable effect on my life, and would give one no support in re-taking the degree exam or retaking some other degree exam at short notice to secure access to the sort of career that I needed to have.


The resistance to even considering the possibility of taking another degree in order to get a good enough class, which I found incomprehensible at the time, presumably arose from the fact that to do so would have been an implicit admission that some individuals can autonomously prepare for exams much faster than others, and that the official 'preparation' had, in my case, been so inappropriate and distorted as to make my prospects in the exam for which I had been officially prepared worse than in one for which I had not been prepared at all.


There is a strong tendency to wish to regard this period, during which the prospective exam-taker is at other people's mercy, as not only unquestionably relevant and contributory to the resulting skill shown in taking the exam, but identical with it.


To make the result of the degree course dependent on the work produced for tutors throughout the course would appear to make even worse the stress resulting from the serious and irrevocable nature of the consequences, as there could be no question of retaking the degree exam to get a better result (at present not permissible, although apparently arbitrarily so, since there appears to be no reason why the exam should not be retaken until a result is achieved at a level satisfactory for the exam-taker's career objectives, as with driving and some other tests.) 




Further notes on the proposed abolition of classified degrees:


To recapitulate, it cannot be stated too emphatically that what is really needed, and has been needed for a long time, is complete decoupling of degree taking from the process of preparation for taking the exam. The conflation of these two things has made it maximally difficult for people to take degree examinations under their own auspices, so that their prospects in life were disproportionately affected by their ability to perform in an exam taken at the end of a long period of supervised 'preparation', over which they had no control.


Clearly the proposed legislation will make the situation worse, not better, but it is easy to see why it should be preferred by those who are running the educational system, as it increases still more their power over individuals.


In addition to the fact that, even if not adversely motivated, those presiding over a person's education may not be intelligent enough to make the necessary allowances for individual differences, the proposed arrangement is clearly going to make it even easier for the agents of the educational system to facilitate the success of those whom they like, or find congenial, for whatever reasons, while undermining those of whom they do not approve.


Even if they did not regard this as acceptable and desirable, it would be an almost inevitable consequence of their dominant position in determining many of the factors in a situation into which so many psychological factors enter.


In my own experience, it has been easy to see that some people were treated very differently from others, and that the effects of their relationship with tutors were sometimes effectively incapacitating. A few ways in which the attitudes of teachers may affect the outcome of the educational process are recognised in the quasi fictional accounts of preferential treatment and attention being bestowed on those with higher IQ's and the hostility to recognising differences in ability, such as those indicated by IQ tests, is because it sets up expectations which will then be self-fulfilling.


This, at least, does provide some recognition of the fact that the psychological attitudes of teachers and tutors can facilitate or otherwise the progress of those who are in their power. The examples given are, however, no longer applicable except in an inverted sense. Even at the time of my education, the idea that a high IQ should not lead to any expectation of success produced the result that I was constantly being told that nobody expected me to be successful, it was immoral of me to say that I intended to have an academic career and do research, and however precocious I was it might very well be the case that I would turn out to be lazy and good for nothing.


There is some ambiguity about whether or not there is any acceptance of the idea that an individual may have internal psychological determinants of his own.  In certain contexts the idea of individual differences, such as IQ, appears to be understood.  It tends to be mentioned explicitly in contexts where it is being asserted that individual differences that might be to the advantage of the individual should be counteracted as far as possible.  In the judgement of a court case in which a girl's parents sued an education authority for failing to provide for her special educational needs, the judge said her dyslexia had prevented her from reaching the standard to be expected of someone with her IQ at her age, but that as her intelligence had enabled her to compensate sufficiently to maintain the same standard as people of the same age but average IQ, the education authority had not failed in its responsibilities towards her.


This shows that there is sufficient understanding of the concept of IQ for the judge to have an idea of what might be expected of a certain IQ at a certain age, but in more general contexts it is often implied that there are no permanent characteristics of an individual, since his personality is entirely defined by the interactions which he has with other people.  By implication, there need be no respect for any characteristic as permanent.  It is certainly never suggested that opposing strong drives or inclinations is a foolish and damaging strategy.  On the contrary, since any very strong drive or salient feature of the personality is ipso facto unusual, it is implied that it can and should be reduced or obliterated.


From the various attitudes expressed in modern ethics, it appears by extrapolation that it should be regarded as desirable to provide an individual of high ability with every possible psychological discouragement, in order to reduce his chances of obtaining the unusual degree of success that would otherwise be made likely by his outstanding ability. (This, of course, is what was actually done to me in the course of my 'education'.)


Since it is allegedly desirable that the educational process should lead to equality of outcome, it is said that any differential in the allocation of financial resources should be to the advantage of the least able, in order to reduce any difference of achievement between them and the more able.  A more old-fashioned idea might be that higher ability would require greater resources in order to fulfil its potential to an equal extent.  For example, it might appear that a person who could learn a dozen languages to a high level while the average person struggled to obtain a rudimentary competence in one, would require a larger quantity of learning materials. 


Then again, since greater innate ability may lead to greater earning capacity,

 ' intervention' is required- 'strict intervention' is the wording used in one place- to eliminate this discrepancy. Presumably psychological intervention at school is as desirable as intervention by taxation later. Actually, it appears to me that a person of unusual ability may well need an income considerably above average if he is to have any hope of fulfilling his potentialities.


In papers on ethics published by modern academics it is possible to find statements to this effect: the best jobs should not be given to the most talented. (Here, for once, there is a concept of talent.) The best jobs are those which provide the greatest job satisfaction, and if the most talented obtain the best jobs, their interests will be being better provided for than the interests of the less talented.  Everyone's interests should be equally provided for, so the less talented should have as good a chance of getting the best positions as the more talented.


Needless to say (or, at least, it should be needless to say) this leaves out of account any consideration of whether it matters how well the job is done, and it also leaves out of account the question of whether what makes a job satisfying to a given individual is dependent on the individual aptitudes and temperament of the individual in question. Presumably this question does not arise because there are no such things as individual characteristics; nevertheless, the word 'talented' was mentioned a little while ago.


From these and other indications which may be found in modern psychology and ethics, it is easy to infer that it would not even be regarded as inappropriate for teachers and tutors deliberately to treat those with high IQ's in the most unfavourable and disadvantaging ways. It is only in line with modern ethical principles that they should be handicapped in any way which may tend to prevent their deriving any benefit from their ability. I was at the time nonplussed when the headmistress of the state school which I was forced to attend against my will expressed the view that ' Not everyone can take exams at less than the average age, so it is an unfair advantage if those who can are allowed to.' As I thought at the time, it may also be a very severe disadvantage to be prevented from doing something that would be a right and natural thing in terms of one's own development. But in terms of the modern ideology, it would only be right if it were. A potentiality for outstanding success needs, in the modern view, to be counteracted by correspondingly outstanding handicaps.