First past the post when it comes to pride

Column: The British obsession with university degrees is a national character flaw

Scientist Robert Winston:  doesn’t like hiring people with first-class degrees. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Scientist Robert Winston: doesn’t like hiring people with first-class degrees. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Mon, May 13, 2013, 01:00

Last week Robert Winston, the media-loving scientist with the big moustache, revealed that he doesn’t like hiring people with first-class degrees. Much better, he said, to go for someone with a 2:1 who has done things other than slog during their three years at university. A broader person makes a better scientist than a narrow nerd who has never stuck his nose outside the library.

I read this over breakfast with relish. As a possessor of Lord Winston’s favourite class of degree, I saw great wisdom in what he said.

It’s cheering, certainly. But is it right?

To find out, I’ve just sent an impudent round-robin email to 40 senior people at the Financial Times demanding to know what class of degree they have. The results are not quite what I expected.

The FT is stuffed with people of whom Lord Winston would disapprove: almost half the senior staff have firsts.

That’s not terribly surprising, but what is odd is who has one and who hasn’t. Never mind the fact that I have had decades to assess the intelligence of my colleagues – I was still rotten at predicting. Only in a few obvious cases did I guess right.

Swotty, brainy or lucky
My test shows that those with firsts are on average neither better nor worse journalists than those with seconds. There might be a slight tendency – though maybe I’m talking my own book here – for the 2:1s to score higher on originality and on humour, and the firsts on solidity and rigour, but it’s only slight.

Even without being a famous scientist, I can tell you that there are three things that help one to get a first-class degree: hard work, brain power, and – at the margin – luck. Thus you can have a swotty first, a brainy one or a lucky one – and each is different.

The same is true for the other classes of degree. I got an ignominious swotty 2:1 – I spent a lot of time in the library, a slightly smaller amount in the pub and the rest skulking in my room.

I had no broadening interests, although in my first year I did run a class teaching undergraduates how to knit.

So I represent the worst of all worlds for Lord Winston – a narrow swot who didn’t even get a first. But so what? I’ve turned out to be a perfectly good employee.

The most revealing thing about the answers to my question is not what degree people got, but how they responded to it.

The first dead giveaway was the link between degree class and speed of reply. The better people did, the more they hurried to tell me about it.

The fastest response was from someone who not only had a first but was amazed I thought the matter in any doubt. “Can’t you guess?” he emailed back.

Slower to answer came the people with seconds. Some simply emailed the degree, but most sent long messages explaining why they hadn’t done better. An illness. Too much fondness for having a good time. Too much time playing sport.

One emailed: “I got a 2:1 (with joint honours in rugby and cricket).” Another even told me the exact marks he got for different papers to prove his 2:1 was a statistical freak.

Character flaw
This is not just because we are insecure journalists. This obsession about our degree is a national character flaw, particularly big (I think) among people who went to Oxbridge.

A few days ago I interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury, and even he felt the need to tell me that almost no work had gone into the 2:1 he got from Cambridge university.

I now see it is insane that we wasted any time talking about it. Since his degree, the Archbishop has proved his intelligence every day.

The same is true for the rest of us. And yet we remain utterly hung up on a week of tests that we did 10, 20, 30 and even 40 years ago. It’s utterly mad.

I suppose it’s because a) for most people the degree is the last time we got an objective mark; b) no one can take it away; and c) the marking system in British universities is stupid – although that is a subject for another day.

Thus the choice facing employers is really between someone who may have a slight chip on their shoulder on account of their 2:1, and someone who feels they have a life-long membership of the clever person’s club as a result of their first.

A friend who employs a lot of interns says she is not keen on firsts for this reason: “They have a view of their own intelligence that I may not share.”

But even she doesn’t make hard rules about it. Finding the right person for a job is so hard that the only sensible thing is to have no rules at all.

Not hiring people with firsts makes about as much sense as not hiring people with moustaches.