Grade expectations? It’s first-class nonsense over ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees

Cambrian News columnist Gareth James shares his View from the Hills

Sunday 31st July 2022 11:00 am
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Nadhim Zahawi dropped English literature, graduating with a ‘high-value’ degree in chemical engineering and going on to become the second highest earning MP in the UK. Larkin graduated with a ‘low-value’ degree in English literature and became a life-long, pittance-paid librarian
Nadhim Zahawi dropped English literature, graduating with a ‘high-value’ degree in chemical engineering and going on to become the second highest earning MP in the UK. Larkin graduated with a ‘low-value’ degree in English literature and became a life-long, pittance-paid librarian (N/A )

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FRESHLY installed between station and university with a fascinating view up North Parade. Besides amusing observations of Aberystwyth tussling with what to wear in the heat, I note an uncommon quantity of puffed-up parents skipping by, accompanying their gowned and mortar-board-donning offspring. Congratulations.

Yet every July, graduation ceremonies spawn perennial grumblings about another uptick in grades, implying that university degrees have become devalued and now provide a less helpful guide for employers. And latterly, that certain degree courses are ‘low value’, offering little in terms of immediate salary.

Hogwash. Lazy gripes about grade inflation are a simple bust. With billions of pounds in extra funding injected into universities from course fees since 1998, with the internet now providing instant access to limitless source material, with improved technology, and evolving teaching methods, if increasing numbers of First-Class degrees were not awarded, the scandal would be why have results not dramatically improved.

In response to such predictable progress, a minority of universities have shrewdly introduced ‘First-Class with Distinction’, or ‘Starred First’, so identifying high-flying students without downgrading the achievements of other First-Class graduates. Sorted.

With regards to ‘low value’ degrees, the Office for Students (OfS), the government department overseeing quality in higher education, warns that courses with high drop-out rates and low rates of graduate employment face increased scrutiny.

Apprenticeships are routinely heralded as the cure-all alternative to the ‘failure rate’ within higher education, however, very little mention is given to data showing 47 per cent of apprentices dropped out last year. Yet, under plans to tackle ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, educational institutions are threatened with fines and the withdrawal of student loan funding if they cannot place 60 per cent of graduates into a professional job within six months.

So, what are ‘low-value’ courses? Well, 90 per cent of the degree courses taken by sitting MPs would now be considered low value by the OfS: politics, psychology, history, philosophy, English, classics etc. Yet, however ironic the government attacks on humanities, the pressure is felt and effects real. English literature has been removed from Sheffield Hallam University’s prospectus, following a lead taken by the University of Cumbria. Not enough wages from words.

But it is not missed that the same populist voices this week decrying English literature degree courses as pointless feigned outrage when anachronistic poems by Philip Larkin and Wilfred Owen were recently removed from an English literature GCSE curriculum. An action described as ‘cultural vandalism’ by Nadhim Zahawi, the erstwhile Secretary of State for Education.

Apparently, Zahawi once found value in English literature studies, claiming, ‘as a teenager improving my grasp of the English language, Larkin’s poems taught me so much about my new home. We must not deny future students the chance to make a similarly powerful connection with a great British author or miss out on the joy of knowing his work.’

But Zahawi dropped English literature, graduating with a ‘high-value’ degree in chemical engineering and going on to become the second highest earning MP in the UK. Larkin graduated with a ‘low-value’ degree in English literature and became a life-long, pittance-paid librarian. So, which degree course do we conclude contributed better value for Britain? Or is this to compare apples with steam engines?

Of course there is scope in Britain for a wide-ranging approach to higher education; whichever mental gymnastics propel students forward. That residents of all ages study on with interest and passion provides more value for both nation and individual than the subjects studied; an inquisitive, motivated, flexible workforce nimbly exploiting the opportunities of an unpredictable future. And anyway, if we restrict degree courses to the instantly lucrative, what a dead-hearted featureless society we will instantly become.

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