“Well, tests ain’t fair. Those that study have an unfair advantage. It’s always been that way.” (Allan Dare Pearce)

Letters will be dropping through mailboxes all over England and Wales this week. High school students are anxiously waiting for their Advanced or A Level exam results. Fifty years ago I was in the same boat.

I’d sat my exams—GCE A Levels in Biology, Geography, English Literature, and General Studies (set by the Joint Matriculation Board)—a few weeks earlier in June, just as the Six Day War broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

Then it was the long wait, constantly full of nagging doubts that I would make the grade to get into university. I nearly didn’t!

I had received offers of places at King’s College and Queen Mary College, University of London, and the University of Southampton. But I’d already decided that if I met their offer (of three Cs) I would accept the place at Southampton to study for a BSc Combined Honours degree in Botany and Geography.

To fill in the time, I took a summer job working as a driver’s mate on lorries (trucks) delivering butter all over the country for Adams Butter, a local company in my home town of Leek in north Staffordshire. Anyway, about a week after I’d received my exam results, having arrived back at the Adams depot late one afternoon from a trip to Liverpool, the supervisor handed me a message that my dad had left there during the course of the day. The message was short and sweet: Southampton wants you! What a relief!

And it really was a relief, because my exam results were not quite up to snuff. Just Grade C for Biology and Geography, and Grade E for English Literature and General Studies. I hadn’t quite met the Southampton offer. However, Lady Luck must have been on my side, because I was accepted on to the course, and duly set of for Southampton in early October to join four other students on the same course.

Burning the candle at only one end
I was not a good student, but I did enjoy being at university.

I scraped through a Geology course in my first year at Southampton. One of the other Botany and Geography students (I only remember he was another Michael, and he came from Birmingham) failed that course, and since there were no re-sit exams in those days (1968), he had to withdraw. Now we were four.

Come Final Exams (or Finals) in May 1970, I was awarded a Lower Second Class degree (often denoted 2:2 or 2ii), with an overall score of 58% apparently, just shy of the Lower Second / Upper Second boundary of 60%. My classmates, John, Stuart and Jane, were awarded Upper Seconds.

Now I should add, for the benefit of my readers outside the UK, that exams are marked on a scale of 1 – 100%, right across the scale. At university, the pass mark was 40%. A First Class degree merited 70% and higher. There were no transcripts, just an overall classification (such as First, Upper Second, Lower Second, etc.) that, for reasons I’ll mention shortly, is increasingly falling out of favour. Fortunately when I was an undergraduate, Finals exams were based just on the courses taken in the third or final year of the degree course. I’m not sure when the changes were made, but in earlier years, Finals were often based on courses taken throughout the whole degree course over three years.

In February 1970, I had applied for a place on a recently established MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham under the direction of Professor Jack Hawkes. Once I had my BSc under my belt I had to wait for a confirmation from Birmingham. Professor Hawkes very quickly told me that he would take me on the course despite my 2:2, but funding was a problem. No student grant available. I didn’t hear back from him until late August or early September that he had been able to find a small maintenance grant (just sufficient to keep body and soul together), and that my tuition fees would be paid by the university.

I redeemed myself at Birmingham. The course was all I expected, the subject matter fired my enthusiasm and, for the first time, I learned how to study efficiently, and take and pass exams with flying colours. The rest is history. Professor Hawkes took me on as his PhD student, and I started a great career in international agricultural research.

I remember leaving his office after I had successfully defended my thesis in October 1975. I think I must have danced a little jig down the corridor, reflecting that I had just taken (and passed) my last exam. Ever! Now that really was a milestone.

The tables turned
Less than six years later, in April 1981, I returned to Birmingham as Lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology (Botany having changed its name in the interim). As a faculty member I developed and taught various courses at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, setting and marking exams for each.

There is growing concern about grade inflation, and the number of top degrees that are now being awarded. In my graduation year (1970) at Southampton, there were no Firsts in Botany, and from a class of maybe 40 Geography undergraduates, there were only two. There were certainly more 2:2s awarded that 2:1 degrees.

That’s not the case today; most undergraduates obtain a top degree. Remarkable! Does that mean they are better students than we were? Perhaps. It might also reflect more generous decisions while marking exam papers, some justified no doubt, others not. Let me explain.

In the UK, undergraduate degree courses and exams are monitored by External Examiners, with the aim of ensuring standards and equability across universities and degree courses. When it came to Finals exams and course work for the Biological Sciences degree at Birmingham, we marked on a 15 point scale, with 13 and above equating to a score of 70% plus or First Class. I didn’t mark my first Finals papers until May/June 1982. Even then, External Examiners were questioning the low number of First Class degrees being awarded in Biological Sciences, and encouraged staff to use the whole marking range. Many staff were reluctant to awards marks higher than 13 (70-75%) for work that clearly merited a higher mark for a First Class answer. As final degree classification was based on the aggregate score for all examinations taken, higher scores in one would compensate for any lower ones elsewhere with, of course, a minimum number of First Class marks having been awarded. Awarding scores of 14 and 15 was, for some, a tough examination culture change.

On reflection, I did not find it that challenging to assign appropriate marks. I remember giving one second year undergraduate a score 0% for his answer to a question about breeding systems in flowering plants and their relevance to taxonomy. His answer consisted of a single paragraph about goldfish!

On another occasion I gave a score of 100% to one of my MSc students (who subsequently went on to complete a PhD under the supervision of my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd and myself). 100%? Is that really possible? As I reviewed her answer to a question about the origins of agriculture, I came to the conclusion that it was as good as anyone might be expected to achieve. It was a consistent and well-reasoned discussion that I could not fault, especially since there was only one hour in which to answer.

Students are perhaps under greater pressure today than my generation was. Everyone needs—and probably expects—a top degree. But I find it hard to believe that half a class of students merit a First Class degree. I think it’s about time that we adopted a detailed transcript system (I know there was talk of this at Birmingham after I left in 1991), that provides documentary evidence of a student’s strengths and weaknesses, if any.

Schools are under pressure to ensure that students achieve the minimum expected grades in their GCSE exams. Universities want to demonstrate their academic worth, leading to better employment prospects for students with top degrees. It’s an academic rat race, and one that I’m glad to have left behind many years ago.


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