You need what to get a First?

Sam Wigglesworth

As a fourth year undergraduate student over half way through the academic year, I’ve found myself thinking more seriously about what I’m going to end up with at the end of June upon completion of my degree – aside from a hideous amount of debt and a slightly worse off liver. This seems to be a somewhat universal thing, at least amongst any of the final year students I have spoken to. The real world is beckoning, far quicker than any of us would like to admit, and if reports are to be believed, the employment situation, while not as bleak as it was four years ago when we started, isn’t exactly ideal. This unfortunately means that you need just about every advantage you can get, and lets face it, your eventual degree classification is intrinsic to that.

This advantage is debatable, however, as universities determine themselves what percentage qualifies you to be awarded with what classifications, and these percentages don’t always match up. For example, in order to obtain a First at Glasgow University, you need to be getting 18/22 or an A5 overall. In percentage terms this amounts to 81% – a difficult task by standard. Of course, Glasgow University is an excellent academic institution, well ranked and part of the elite Russell group, and presumably should be able to set whatever grade boundaries it likes. But consider my confusion when I discovered that the University of Edinburgh, also an excellent academic institution, well ranked and part of the elite Russell group, awards Firsts to students who achieve 70% in their degree assessments, and gives students a 2:1 when they achieve 60%. These are no meagre differences, by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, they are entire grade boundaries. Furthermore, it’s not just Edinburgh who set such boundaries, and a quick google search shows that the University of Aberdeen, Queens University Belfast and Cardiff University have similar classification boundaries.

These differences represent something fundamentally unfair about the way universities award degree classifications. The entire point of the grading system is to provide some sort of standard benchmark for students and employers as far as academic achievements go. Except, rather unfortunately, the benchmarks are not standardised across different institutions.

This can, in some cases, pose an impediment to the employability of students after graduation. If you have two students with similar experience and degree subjects and one is from the University of Glasgow, and has a 2:1, and the other has a First from the University of Edinburgh, there is little on paper differentiating them to an employer, other than their degree classification, when in reality, they both have managed to achieve similar marks. Meanwhile, further down the grading scale, it is acknowledged that students who have a 2:1 and 2:2 have different opportunities, with many graduate schemes and further education opportunities requiring a minimum 2:1 for consideration. Depending on how your institution has determined the grade boundaries, there may be little or no difference in your actual academic achievement, not that this will offer you much comfort.

Meanwhile, the weaknesses that stem from the emphasis on what class of degree you have been awarded has been acknowledged, albeit in a limited way. The Scottish system in particular prides itself on the diversity of study available, and in your pre-honours years you are encouraged to take different classes alongside your compulsory degree credits. This, however, goes unacknowledged after your degree is completed and you’re left with only one or two years assessed work determining your entire university experience.

Ultimately, however, the biggest issue with this is the lack of knowledge about it. Very few students I have spoken to were aware of what it takes to get a First or 2:1 at Glasgow, and a straw poll indicated that many students expected Edinburgh to demand more from their students in terms of degree classification.

If standardisation is out of reach, as I imagine it is, then a conversation needs to be had about what it takes to get a degree from Glasgow or any other institution that has such high grading boundaries, given that the ‘norm’ is around the 70% mark. Postgraduate programmes, employers, and those running graduate schemes should all be aware that a student with a 2:2 from Glasgow University has, in actual fact, achieved the same academically as a student from the University of Edinburgh, Cardiff, or Aberdeen, who has a 2:1. This wouldn’t cheapen a degree from Glasgow; rather it would lead to a wider acknowledgement about what it takes to achieve a good degree from the institution – which would, lets face it, benefit everyone in the long run. Particularly fourth years, who frankly have enough to be getting on with.