THE BLOG

We Need to Talk About the 2:1

27/07/2015 11:09 BST | Updated 26/07/2016 10:59 BST

"A 2:1 is all you need" is a phrase I've probably heard a thousand times at uni and is almost certainly something I comforted myself with when the occasional essay came back with a tear-inducing grade. I wouldn't be surprised if many students have it printed in flowery calligraphy and pinned above their desks. Unfortunately though, there's a problem with the 2:1 that needs to be addressed.

When universities minister Jo Johnson said recently that 2:1s are becoming too common I was initially offended. I was on track for a high 2:1 throughout my university career and it was the grade I accepted with a sigh of relief and happiness when I graduated recently - why was he undermining it?

With more students achieving the higher grades than ever before, Johnson claims the 2:1 category "disguises considerable variation in attainment" and can allow students to "coast" by. In short he's saying that many students who graduate with a 2:1 simply don't deserve one.

The apparent ability of students to "coast" through their degrees underpins the ongoing stereotype of lazy students partying and sleeping though university, handing in the odd late assignment that scrapes them a pass. This is an incredibly unfair summary of the sometimes enormous workloads of students, the majority of whom are hard working and genuinely care about the subject they study. That said, I have definitely been witness to various vented frustrations of students with high 2:1s complaining that they shared a grade with peers who had done comparatively little work and achieved a low 2:1.

Any discussion of grade boundaries is always clouded by the problem of ability and desert. More intelligent students, one could argue, don't need to exert the same level of effort as other students to achieve higher grades - they can easily coast by and get high a 2:1. Equally, students who struggle might work incredibly hard and therefore deserve their 2:1, albeit a lower one. Suggesting that the lower marks considered eligible for an overall 2:1 grade should be considered for demotion might harm the ability of those who struggle but work hard to get the grade they really deserve.

For me, though, your grade should reflect the quality of your work and your "coasting" ability is irrelevant. It's hardly controversial to suggest that there is a significant difference in the quality of an essay that scores a 69 compared to a 60, and the 2:1 blanket for these marks almost certainly devalues the work of those scoring in the upper half of the boundary.

According to Johnson, more than 50% of students achieve a 2:1. If employers are looking to separate the good candidates from the best it seems that the 2:1 needs to undergo a meaningful split that doesn't simply involve candidates slinging the word "upper" or "lower" in front of their grade on their CV, particularly when it is omitted on the degree certificate.

While a reformed grading system that splits the 2:1 wouldn't be popular with many students and will put more pressure on those navigating the middle area and below, it could mean that university grading offers more meaningful signposts to employers with stacks of 2:1s on their desks.

Grades aren't everything, but the 2:1 as a symbol of great and consistent academic ability is becoming an irrelevance.