Guest blog by Jedrzej Szymanski
After the first year of my degree, I was proud to be on track for a 2:1, only to read the same week that this is the most common grade for English university students .
With endless one-to-one tutorials and seminars, weekly essays of 2,000 words, and hours spent reading and preparing, my first year was a lot of work. I found myself asking if all this was worth it, just to be considered “average”.
My tutors told me to feel great about my grades, which is why I was slightly confused and a little frustrated to be told I’ve just joined the most crowded group of students to soon join the labour market. I am also probably not the only one who questions a narrow grading system, which implies that every degree experience is the same as the next.
With such a simplistic system, how are employers supposed to know all the extra effort and activity I put into my degree; what sets me apart from the majority? I attend New College of the Humanities, which offers a broad liberal arts diploma, with added course elements unique to NCH, focussed on employability and critical thinking, and the requirement that every student studies at least two subject areas in depth. NCH, and similar institutions which concentrate on teaching rather than research, are often not recognised in the higher education league tables, which means employers don’t know about the extra teaching (and extra learning) that goes on there.
I started my vacation lamenting the lack of individuality in my degree classification, but it seems that there may be a future opportunity which could lift my spirits. The government has put forward a Bill on Higher Education to make it more student friendly. By introducing a market approach to the system, they are increasing student choice. It means students like me, and the employers who hire us, will have the information they need to understand just what students do in the course of their degree, no matter where they study.
Many students want to know before they start that they will gain certain skills in the course of undertaking their degree, and want to know they will be treated like an individual. When students can’t find a job in the sector they want after graduation, they can feel betrayed by their university and to some extent rightly so, given the narrow choices and few details provided to them when applying.
Many colleges like NCH aren’t listed on websites like Unistats, just because they’re funded by students and not the government. Students are not given the full information about the range of educational opportunities available to them, and so cannot make informed decisions about what education is right for them. Loans quickly become grants when graduates are taught in institutions which don’t ensure their students gain the skills that will enable them to pay them off. The time those students spend working towards their degree is no longer an investment and they are saddled with large debts out of proportion to the actual value added by their institution.
I welcome the changes proposed in the current HE Bill and White Paper. They move us into modern times and away from a very limited grading system, university league tables based almost entirely on funds spent on research, and degrees failing to distinguish those of us who are ‘job ready’. As a student I agree that it’s time for a wider range of colleges and universities which teach interesting degrees to enter the system. There is a risk of publicly funded universities mass-producing groups of students who can only aspire to meet average expectations. Quality of teaching will eventually become the focus for institutions offering degrees and hopefully students who work extremely hard will get an individual reward not an average grade.
Jedrzej is a second-year student at New College of the Humanities in Bloomsbury, London
- On 14th July 2016