The credibility of universities came under fire recently when research by think tank Reform revealed the proportion of first-class degrees awarded almost doubled between 1997 and 2009, and had risen by 26 per cent since 2010.
It spurred a call for setting degree grade benchmarks, which would mean only the top 10 per cent of students could be awarded firsts.
But, when it comes to employers, the only ones I can imagine are exercised by the increased number of firsts are those that hire academics. For other employers, grade inflation in itself is not really much of an issue.
Employers tend to seek four key attributes in their student hires: an ability to get stuff done with and through other people (teamwork), a problem-solving ability to deal with the organisation’s challenges (practical intelligence), an ambition to learn and develop within the organisation (growth mindset) and a willingness to do difficult, sometimes less-than-exciting tasks (work ethic).
What I do question is whether our education system is focused enough on developing the skills, knowledge and attributes that all of our young people need to help them – and therefore our organisations and society – succeed.
Passing exams is part of the learning process and grades are a useful measure of performance, but employers care less about grades then many people think they do.
Yes, our research shows many graduate employers, 69 per cent, ask for a minimum of a 2:1. But, as three out of four students hit this benchmark, it doesn’t put them in a very exclusive club. Far fewer employers set a UCAS minimum for applicants (21 per cent).
The increased availability of sophisticated data and advances in technology has changed how employers assess candidates. Equipped with a more accurate set of tools to predict a successful hire, they are less reliant on grades.
In addition, the social mobility movement has challenged employers who use arbitrary benchmarks to think differently. Those who continue to use grades will look at contextual data to assess grades relative to a candidate’s schooling and background – looking for someone who is outperforming their peers, rather than focusing on absolute grades.
The trouble with grades is that they are a blunt cut-off. Historically, some employers have argued that grades are a useful proxy to define a talent pool when most don’t care what specific subject a student has studied. We sometimes forget that we are talking about hiring people with little experience. Once you have a track record, what grades you have, become, well, academic.
And if employers knew how diverse the degree-awarding systems different universities use are, they would rely on them even less. In the UK, the numbering system used for degree classification may be standardised but the algorithms that create the number are not. Universities are autonomous institutions and set their own policies and at subject level, mathematics, for example, by its nature has to be marked differently to history.
Grades are a snapshot. High grades also reward perfection and work for most of us is far less absolutist. The answer to a work problem that is represented by a ‘first’ is probably too expensive and will take too long to achieve. In work, the most efficient solution is often the most productive, a 2:1 is better than a first.
Stephen Isherwood is chief executive at the Institute of Student Employers