Kirsty Gunn: How can so many be first class when we live in an upper-second world?

Kirsty Gunn writes in The Scotsman. This time of year, with exam results on the way, the newspapers and radio will start their stories about happy or not so happy teenagers.

Pictures of gangs of girls clutching their Highers results and smiling wide for the camera are offset by terrible sounding statistics about falling literacy rates and lower than ever results nationwide compared to international averages and those grades achieved in Asia. Or and on the very opposite end of the scale – and a hot subject at the moment in the university sector – there are the headlines about overall pass rates rising at an unprecedented level and crazy inflations of grades, especially at the top end of award classes. Is an A still an A? That’s the question parents and students might be asking themselves as the new academic year shows itself on the horizon. Is passing or not passing the same as it used to be?

Certainly, it’s true that there are more first class degrees about now than ever before – from the lauded Oxbridge/Russell Group institutions to the newer universities which are supposedly easier to get into. So that’s something to think about, right there. The University of Surrey gave firsts to a record 41 per cent of students last year, more than double the amount of those awarded five years ago. And here in Scotland, in a mix of old and new and in-between the two, Aberdeen, Stirling and Dundee, where I teach, are now in the top 20 of all UK universities awarding the highest number of firsts – as was reported in this paper last week, quoting the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, Nick Hillman who confirmed that issues such as university rankings may be fuelling “grade inflation”.

Then there’s the latest Press Association survey, overseeing the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s figures, indicating that it is now more common to graduate with a first class degree than a lower second grade . . . At which point we might want to stop and take a breath. Because – and students, just like their parents are aware of this, even though they may not want to be aware of it – the fact of the matter is that a First, like an A, or an A*, means excellent. And excellent is amazing. Because what excellent means is that it stands outside the rest, that it’s more unusual than the norm, that it’s ’s rare.

So yes, all this is a bit strange, isn’t it? Because life, in general, as we well know, tends more towards the quotidian, the everyday, the upper-or-lower-second kind of experience – on average, I mean – than it does towards the first class treatment. Not to say that any of us don’t enjoy a bit of first class action if we can manage it . . . But for it to become a norm? To be expected? For it to represent about a quarter of overall achievement, and in the case of some institutions as much as a third?

Think , too, back to the early New Labour years and Tony Blair’s education promise actually being as much about getting young people off the unemployment register as it was about expanding their horizons. For the numbers rather give it away, don’t they? “In 1994”, I tell my students, when they come clamouring at my door asking for A marks on their papers, “before Universities were turned into business operations only seven per cent of students received first class degrees.” As the Americans say, I might tell them, Go figure.

Read more Kirsty Gunn: How can so many be first class when we live in an upper-second world?

Can we still trust the grading systems? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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