A 100% pass rate does not mean smarter students

By Wilfred Goodhart

Pass. Pass. Pass. The repetitive nature of Durham students’ success was revealed by The Sunday Times through a Freedom of Information request with the astounding claim that not a single student was failed in their final exams last year. In some circles, this figure has been credited to ever-increasing intelligence, improved teaching and harder-working students. Students are clearly far smarter and innately more driven than their lacklustre parents and grandparents. We should pat ourselves on the back for becoming the most successful generation to have ever graced this planet.

Apparently our generation is smarter than our parents’

After all, in the past few decades our parents have only developed driverless cars, 3-D printing, and, rather terrifyingly, intercontinental ballistic missiles with the capacity to reach America from North Korea, to name but a select few of the myriad of discoveries and potentially global war-inducing breakthroughs which are being made every day of every week.

To me, it is clear that in comparison to our predecessors, our generation are very much equals in terms of ability, drive and imagination. Yes, we may hold a minute advantage, along with every ‘next’ generation, because modern technology is always available at our fingertips, allowing us to analyse and utilise resources in a different way. However, it is ultimately the same set of resources as was available to previous generations.

Even when these resources were not available, such as for the Romans and Greeks, the world was inhabited by the most imaginative and awe-inspiring peoples to ever grace this planet. They created art that still resonates thousands of years later. They conceived democracy in a time of despots. They created archaeology we cannot even now re-create, applying maths beyond their years. Yet, I hear you whispering under your breath, ‘But did the Romans and Greeks pass exams like we do today?’

Universities should not be boasting about their perfect records

Although modern day universities boast of their perfect records, it is something they should instead be concealing in the deepest and darkest of corners alongside the salaries of their vice-chancellors. Common sense must prevail. As a generation, we are not any inherently smarter or more hard-working than the previous; ultimately, we have the same brains and as Malcom Gladwell astutely notes in ‘Outliers’, the hardest working generation ever was the ancient Chinese. That generation, all those hundreds of years ago, tirelessly worked on their rice paddies, bequeathing to later generations an intensity of work and drive which modern people still strive to match. So why is it that every generation does better and better, exceeding the impossibly high standards set before?

The causes of this improvement (or decline, depending on your viewpoint) are obvious. Throughout the entirety of the British schooling system, from the first public exam to the final university degree, there is a severe pressure to constantly improve standards which causes grade inflation like the monetary hyper-inflation of a Zimbabwean government under Robert Mugabe. As rival competition increases, universities understandably buckle to try to match their counterparts, who might achieve a staggering 100% pass rate every single year. This sparks a consistent increase in grades by competing factions like an arms race between warring and hostile nations. Let’s hope the consequences are not so severe.

Pressure to constantly improve has caused severe grade inflation

However, there are certainly consequences. The value of every good degree declines slightly by the pass of each degree which should be a fail. Furthermore, the ability to stand out from the crowd becomes virtually impossible. Back in my mum’s day, when she too was at Durham, only one person in her year achieved a first in History. Immediately, he was elevated to the status of legend amongst their group: at their Durham-only dinner parties – for lack of other friends – they still recount that “Richard the first, he was a king amongst men!”

Now society has created a culture that has simply re-defined the meaning of success. Despite the vast increase in the cost of degrees, their value is diminishing. They are not yet worthless by any means, but, if we are not careful, in forty years my friends and I will recount that “Richard the first, he was a man amongst kings!”

Photograph: Jason Parrish via Flickr

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