Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Degrees - How much do we tell our students?

Having written about graduation in my last posting, it occurred to me to take a look at my original degree certificate from my maths degree at Cambridge (graduation in 1967). While it did state that I was now a Bachelor of Arts, it mentioned neither the subject of the degree, nor the class. Nor do I have any other documentation, such as a trancript, to confirm what I did and what my results were back then. In those days, too, it didn't really occur to any of us that we ought to be getting more information - and if we had dared ask, I imagine the result would have been a quiet chat with the Senior Tutor over a glass of sherry. In fact, when I think about it, I realise that in my three years at Cambridge I never received the marks or any other feedback for any of the examinations I took, except to be told that I had passed each year, and at the end that I had a first class degree. If I now needed to prove this for some reason, I expect I would have to go back to my old college and ask them to consult their records.

I then realised that I don't have my degree certificates from Oxford at all, because when I completed the relevant programmes (BPhil and then DPhil in economics) I never attended a degree ceremony, and never arranged for the certificates to be sent to me - an omission I now rather regret. So this week I belatedly approached Oxford to find out whether I could now get my certificates, nearly 40 years late. According to their rules, it appears that I am out of luck. However, I can be sent a formal letter confirming that I have earned the relevant degrees, and this I have now requested; I'll be interested to see what the letter actually says. Shortly, therefore, I should at least have some documentary evidence of my qualifications.

Interestingly, though, I have managed to go through an entire career - briefly in industry, mostly in higher education - without once being asked to provide any evidence of my qualifications. My claims about degrees were always believed, and luckily I'm not dishonest; no one has ever been deceived. Yet nowadays, my understanding is that employers routinely expect to see evidence of job applicants' qualifications when they go for a job. For academic jobs in the university, for instance, applicants are certainly expected to produce degree certificates and the like. What this means is that applicants are apparently less trusted than they were in the past, possibly because there have actually been a few reported cases of folk pretending to have qualifications that they did not. That said, it does seem a shame that in yet one more area of life, old fashioned trust in people's basic integrity has gone out the window.

Nowadays, both our students and their future employers expect to see far more information about their performance than was the norm in my day. Not only do they receive a degree certificate which, unlike my own, does mention little details like the subject of study and class of degree, but graduates are also sent a detailed transcript listing the various courses they have taken and the grades awarded. For us this is a relatively new practice, but in the US it has already been standard for some decades. In this sense, we're merely catching up.

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