The people who lived around Santa Barbara in California before the arrival of the Europeans, known as the Chumash, had what at first sight seems a curious custom. Every few years they gathered together the shells that they used as currency, and burned all their money, before starting the cycle again. This ensured, of course, that the shell currency did not become hopelessly devalued as more and more shells came into circulation. Quantitative easing was not a long-term option. Anyhow, much the same has happened as more and more universities award more and more First-class degrees. It is as true in Cambridge as elsewhere. When I was an undergraduate twenty or so people would graduate with Firsts in history, and fewer still would be able to claim Double Firsts, having also secured a First at the end of their second year. Now the figure on graduation has reached sixty, but I don’t think the number of candidates has changed – around 200 per annum. At the other end, the 2:2 and Third have almost become marks of distinction, they are so rare.
It is true that Oxford and Cambridge no longer admit the sort of undergraduate whose distinction on the river is not matched by his distinction as a student of History (or whatever subject). To satisfy national standards, marking schemes are now numerical, and those subtle inflated marks that indicated strange combinations of, say, wild inaccuracy with flashes of brilliance (gamma-alpha, or at any rate beta-query-query-alpha) have vanished. This now means that assigning students to their class is a much more mechanical, quantitative, exercise, than it used to be. Gone are the often lengthy, agonized, qualitative discussions of whether someone with beta-alpha-stroke-alpha-beta with an arrow going up should have his mark converted into alpha-beta-stroke-beta-alpha, which might be the key to a First. I recall an occasion when the person responsible for that very mark insisted in his strong Irish brogue ‘beta-alpha-stroke-alpha-beta with an arrow going up it is, and beta-alpha-stroke-alpha-beta with an arrow going up it shall remain’. That note of discipline coming from a historian of sweet temperament and great generosity was a surprise, but it was a clear nolle prosequi, and it left the candidate with a 2:1.
There is undoubtedly a steady erosion of the old standard, even if this erosion is gentler in Cambridge than in universities I have visited where the weakest exam paper is disregarded, or where a run of marks of 69 is deemed effectively the same as a mark of 70, which is the usual borderline for a First. But the point about giving 69 is that one doesn’t really think an exam script has made the grade, even if it almost did so: it is Dr X’s ‘beta-alpha-stroke-alpha-beta with an arrow going up’, and no more. And then there are take-away essays, dissertations, projects, even marks for performance in class, which can all be used to increase the chances that students in one’s university will squeeze into the First class.
All this is not really doing anyone great favours. Sometimes people who have arrived here for postgraduate work with Firsts from elsewhere have been a puzzle: ‘how did she (or he) get a First?’ one is asked, and of course one doesn’t know. These people may find graduate work more of a struggle than they expected.
Finally, then, it is time to emulate the Chumash and burn the old currency. By all means keep Firsts as a title of honour, but it would make much more sense to provide transcripts on the American model. Yet that would involve a recognition of one rather sad change. In the old days – for instance when I was an undergraduate – all one knew was that one had been placed in a particular class. That was the result, pure and simple. No one ever told me what marks I secured on the different papers I took. Had I been unhappy with the result, could I have complained? I doubt it. Now there are appeals galore. And now, all the way through education, from GCSE through the ghastly AS exam (that Cambridge Admission Tutors are defending with such misguided zeal), and then in A2, and as undergraduates, and during Master’s degrees, every single unit is scored and counted, and success means not putting a foot wrong anywhere (and not having daft examiners, of whom there are plenty even in Oxbridge). At least PhDs are not graded, but no doubt that will happen in time.
So the First is an anachronism. The Chumash would have known what to do. Let’s start afresh. Transcripts and piles of marks paper by paper are not ideal, but they are more honest indications of quality than what we have now.
*David Abulafia FBA is professor of Mediterranean History in the University of Cambridge and Papathomas Professorial Fellow of Gonville and Caius College. His books include The Great Sea: a human history of the Mediterranean and he is co-author of Politeia’s publication History in the Making.