Wednesday 4 September 2019 4:07 am

How to end the injustice of the skewed university degree system

Imagine a world where Eton awarded its own A-levels.

No one else could take them and, if you got an A grade in, for example, chemistry, it was worth more than an A grade in the same subject from any other exam board.

It would be hideously unfair. Etonians would have a huge, inbuilt advantage in everything, from getting into the best universities to applying for jobs. It wouldn’t matter how hard you worked, how clever you were, or how well you performed in your exams. If you didn’t go to Eton, your life chances simply wouldn’t be as good. 

Thank goodness that sort of thing doesn’t happen today in the real world, right?


But it does. Right here in modern Britain, universities are doing precisely that. Instead of Eton awarding special A-levels that no one else can match, Oxford and Cambridge do it for degrees instead.

For every other serious qualification in the UK, the same grades in the same subjects mean the same things. 

A City and Guilds qualification in plumbing is worth the same to a student or a potential employer, no matter which further education college you studied at. A particular grade at A-level or GCSE English is worth the same whether you went to school in Truro or Tadcaster. 

But a first in English from Oxford or Cambridge isn’t worth the same as one from most former polytechnics.

How can it be fair that older institutions with long-established reputations are automatically assumed to be better than new ones, whether their teaching and courses deserve it or not?

There are a few honourable exceptions, like medical subjects, which standardise their grades so a degree is worth the same from everywhere. 

This system holds the seeds of an answer across the board: if every university pledged to make qualifications from similar courses equal, so a 2:1 in English was worth the same no matter where students studied, it would be revolutionary.


Students would feel the effects first. Anyone who fluffed their A-levels and didn’t get into their first choice of university would have a second chance; they could still fulfil their potential by getting an equally good qualification from somewhere else. 

It would make Britain a far fairer place: a more socially-just, meritocratic, mobile society, where someone who works hard and succeeds has the same life chances whether their father is a duke or a doorman.

And directly-comparable grades would give a jolt of adrenaline to Britain’s universities as well. 

For the first time, everyone would be able to compare the A-level grades which students had when they arrived with the quality of degree they’d earned when they left. 

Pretty soon, there would be league tables showing which university courses added the most value during the three years of study, and which ones added least. Students would beat a path to the doors of those with the best teaching, and avoid the worst like the plague. Poor performers would have to pull their socks up, and the good ones would have nothing to fear.

Even better, universities would have a much stronger incentive to find and admit students with undiscovered talents. Bright students who’d got poor grades because they were ill on exam day, or had problems at home, or came from a disadvantaged background, would be like gold dust for admissions staff looking to vault up the value-added rankings. 

All those recurring stories about there not being enough clever working-class or ethnic minority students at posh old universities would vanish.

In today’s global knowledge economy, enabling everyone to make the most of their talents doesn’t just help people live more fulfilled lives. It fuels the engines of Britain’s wealth and growth too. 

In other words, we’d be richer as well as happier, and it wouldn’t cost taxpayers a bean. How many other ideas can say that?

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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