Degree Standard? A Devalued Currency

This week figures show that 20 per cent of students in British Universities get a first class degree. The figure was ten per cent a decade ago. Professor David Abulafia explains that in a system in which mechanical marking has replaced qualitative judgement, it's time for the 'First' to go.

The people who lived around Santa Barbara in California before the arrival of the Europeans, known as the Chumash, had what at first sight seems a curious custom. Every few years they gathered together the shells that they used as currency, and burned all their money, before starting the cycle again. This ensured, of course, that the shell currency did not become hopelessly devalued as more and more shells came into circulation.  Quantitative easing was not a long-term option. Anyhow, much the same has happened as more and more universities award more and more First-class degrees. It is as true in Cambridge as elsewhere. When I was an undergraduate twenty or so people would graduate with Firsts in history, and fewer still would be able to claim Double Firsts, having also secured a First at the end of their second year. Now the figure on graduation has reached sixty, but I don’t think the number of candidates has changed – around 200 per annum. At the other end, the 2:2 and Third have almost become marks of distinction, they are so rare.

It is true that Oxford and Cambridge no longer admit the sort of undergraduate whose distinction on the river is not matched by his distinction as a student of History (or whatever subject). To satisfy national standards, marking schemes are now numerical, and those subtle inflated marks that indicated strange combinations of, say, wild inaccuracy with flashes of brilliance (gamma-alpha, or at any rate beta-query-query-alpha) have vanished. This now means that assigning students to their class is a much more mechanical, quantitative, exercise, than it used to be. Gone are the often lengthy, agonized, qualitative discussions of whether someone with beta-alpha-stroke-alpha-beta with an arrow going up should have his mark converted into alpha-beta-stroke-beta-alpha, which might be the key to a First.  I recall an occasion when the person responsible for that very mark insisted in his strong Irish brogue ‘beta-alpha-stroke-alpha-beta with an arrow going up it is, and beta-alpha-stroke-alpha-beta with an arrow going up it shall remain’. That note of discipline coming from a historian of sweet temperament and great generosity was a surprise, but it was a clear nolle prosequi, and it left the candidate with a 2:1.       

No Easy Solution?

Friday 9th January: Western jihadis are motivated by anger and deep social hatreds, says Professor Robert Tombs* in his response to the murder of  French cartoonists in Paris. The remedy is difficult and long: education, integration, employment and more equal opportunity.

The grotesque disproportion between the act of publishing mocking cartoons and the retribution of brutal and cold-blooded murder is shocking, but not surprising. The magazine Charlie Hebdo – a venerable product of the 1960s – and its equally venerable cartoonists Cabu and Wolinski had long practised provocation and offense against all established institutions and conventional values, and it had made them household names. They refused to make an exception for Islam: as they mocked the Pope, Abraham or the Virgin Mary, so they would mock Mohammed.  It made them the target of death threats and bomb attacks.  Both old men, they finally paid with their lives.  I did not always like their work, but I admire their courage in the face of repeated threats of violence, and, retrospectively, uphold their right to freedom of expression. ‘Je suis Charlie’ is today an expression of decency.

Public Spending: Whom Should we Believe?

Friday 19th December: As the debate over 1930s spending ratios looks set to dominate the New Year’s political debate, Dr Sheila Lawlor introduces Politeia’s new analysis by the distinguished economist, David B. Smith, of the substance behind the spin.

As the year draws to a close, the economy continues to hog the headlines, and it’s likely to do so until the 2015 general election. Fresh battle lines have been drawn over the main parties’ spending plans. Labour, if returned to power, now promises to cut the deficit every year of the next parliament. The Conservatives, at least since the Chancellor’s autumn statement in early December, have been ‘accused’ of cutting more than is necessary for ‘ideological’ reasons. Britain, it is alleged, will be returned to the hair shirt levels of the 1930s. The line, perpetrated by the media, is evocative of dole queues, cloth caps and a country scarred by unemployment.

Reform or Renegotiation?

Friday 12th December: As Greece prepares to elect its next president, Brussels has put its money on the safe pair of hands, Stavros Dimas, a former commissioner and ‘convinced European’. But in a year when voters across the EU sent a strong Eurosceptic message to Brussels, Lord Howell of Guildford explains that if the EU is to survive and prosper, more, the old Europe must be left behind.    
‘Renegotiation with a Reformed EU’ is now the declared British way forward out of the EU tangle. Ideas and shopping lists abound about the issues needing renegotiation - from the technical to the fundamental. Many of them would require changes in the EU Treaties.
But what about the reform part of the strategy? Where and how is that going to start?  
Rather than becoming bogged down in sterile, bilateral and ultimately divisive arguments about Britain's relations and powers vis-a-vis the rest of the EU (a situation towards which events are currently fast slipping),  Britain should take the initiative in reforming (i.e. changing the direction of) the EU as a whole.
The British need to make and win the case for a better sort of Europe, more attuned to the 21st century and the digital age - and do so in a manner which wins over allies throughout the EU. It must be shown, as so many across the EU privately acknowledge, that the integrationist doctrine has reached its limits and goes flatly against the powerful trends of modern technology and that a more sustainable model is available.

Go Global - Lower taxes, less borrowing & the smaller state - are the way to grow

Friday 5th December: George Osborne’s Autumn Statement has helped bring some key issues to the fore; on growth, fiscal policy and the future role of the state. Though the recovery is underway, too much spending is fuelled by borrowing, while productivity and skills remain low. As Dr Lyons writes:
The first key message is that the economy is recovering strongly but there is scepticism about how sustainable such growth is. In some respects patience is needed, not only for wages to recover but also for confidence to increase. Yet, at the same time any recovery will likely expose some of the fundamental flaws we have seen in the past, namely too much of personal spending is driven by borrowing and that rising house prices are as much of a problem as a solution. The UK cannot get rich by selling houses to itself, or to foreigners.
We need to keep thinking globally, and it is only by doing so, that we will remain focussed on the need to reposition the economy through higher investment, more innovation and increased exports. Domestic demand needs to be strong, too. People need more money and the Chancellor is right to think that lower taxes are part of the solution, but so too is the need for higher wages based on improved productivity. UK productivity is low, due to many factors, including low skills and a lack of prior investment. But also some of the factors explaining low productivity include the high numbers in work and a lack of demand, as in a service sector economy it requires spending to rise for productivity gains to be seen.
Syndicate content