The BBC reports today that first class degrees are soaring. What are employers to make of this? Does it mean there are more top class graduates than ever? More committed students? Better teaching? Easier assessments? More teaching to the test? Dumbing down? Any, all, or more. Expect the usual comments, debate and lack of any meaningful conclusions or changes. Meanwhile how helpful are degree classifications in choosing a new professional trainee in rural surveying or similar professional consultancy work? The safe answer is probably, not a lot.
There are excellent examples of graduates who are now leading members of their professions, yet showed little inclination or sign of this as undergraduates. There are also examples of top-class graduates who have made little headway in commercial, professional or for that matter academic life. And of course there are low grade graduates who have achieved relatively little since and high grade graduates who have indeed gone on to great things. Firm relationships prove elusive.
How would I address this today if I were recruiting a new professional assistant? Here are my tips:
- I would ask to see the profile of final marks they got for all the modules they studied on each year of the course. This may highlight relative strengths and weaknesses (but don’t be too sure – you may just be looking at normal variations between one subject and another despite increasing attempts to homogenise these profiles). These profiles are routinely issued to graduates by all universities.
- Ask the candidates to prepare some work beforehand. Perhaps an article for the firm’s newsletter of 500 to 1,000 words, on a given topic. This could even be useful alongside an announcement of the arrival of the new recruit in due course.
- Warn the candidates they will be asked to advise a client on a particular subject in exam-like conditions as part of the recruitment process. Provide some warning of the subject, eg contentious rent review on a let farm, claim for a water-pipe burst or something which is relevant to the work they will be doing. Allow reference material. Ask the candidates to draft a short email or letter to the client or other party setting out their advice, by hand.
- Meet the team: but make sure the team is briefed for whatever feedback you want from them on the candidates.
- Use the interview imaginatively – include a mix of technical and problem-solving questions; ask candidates to perform a task which they might encounter in their working life with you.
- Try to find the class position of the candidates. For example in the top 10%, 25%? On a reasonably sized course this at least gives an idea of relative performance within the cohort. It’s not information that is routinely issued to graduates nor readily available, but there’s a growing case that it should be – perhaps to the nearest decile for courses with 50 or more graduates, and quartile for smaller courses.
And if you must persevere with placing any reliance on degree classifications it might be worth checking the statistics for yourself. The Higher Education Statistics Agency produces the data that underpinned the BBC Report, and UniStat can give you information on individual courses at individual universities. Comparison of classifications is not the only or the most useful way to compare potential graduate employees.