When you roll up on Day One feeling like an impostor of inferior intelligence to every anxious face around you, knowing that your marks this year won’t count towards your final degree seems pretty assuring. When you groggily wake up after a fortnight of Freshers in a hangover coma, this seems especially assuring. At the end of their first year many do receive that 40% pass with pride. After all, maintaining such an impressively low average seems an achievement in itself. But plenty of students, myself included, did lo and behold venture into the library this year (I didn’t actually take a book out mind you) and end up wishing that it did count, if only for a little.
The “40% mentality” annoys me. First year does count – it counts as much as £9,000. No one would ever willingly throw away such a sum, so why do most students? Sure, first year is about meeting new people, adapting to life away from home, and building up your alcohol tolerance. But you could do all of these things on a gap year – let’s be honest, it’s also about upping your game academically. Scraping a pass isn’t going to do you any favours here. You’re bound to do better second and third year, when it does count, if you can remember how to read and write.
I’m probably giving you the impression that I’ve sat at my desk, locked away in my room for most of the year. I have – playing Football Manager. Contrary to popular belief, attending a lecture or seminar now and again (I only had seven hours of them a week anyway!) doesn’t mean missing out on any of the “uni experience”. I had the best year of my life, going out two nights a week, playing for a sports team, meeting new people all the time. The reality is, the only thing studying really replaces is the afternoon nap you would never have considered taking before this year anyway. You shouldn’t sleep through £9,000, even if your lecture is at 9am.
I think easing us in with a weightless first year is unnecessary and disparaging. No other environment grants you such a luxury. The real world is a high pressure environment. An employer wouldn’t refrain from sacking you any longer than a week, let alone a year, if you only handed in papers when you felt like it. Sixth Form was all about preparing us for university level work, so we don’t need a year-long practise run when we get here. What is there even to learn? You pick up how to reference in essays and how to work the washing machine soon enough.
I think the first year at university should count for something like 10% of your degree. Such a reform shouldn’t be made to motivate those otherwise careless and lazy students, but to credit those who would have put in the effort anyway (though subsequently it would encourage the former). First year should be worth enough to acknowledge the hours of study that made it up, but not so much that a jittery 2.2 can’t be raised to a 2.1 by the time you graduate. You might argue that it would be wrong for someone’s early homesickness to be the difference between them achieving or missing out on their dream of a First. It would be a great shame, but the reality is there are countless other factors equally influential and out of our control. The difference between success and failure can be said to boil down to anything: a stingy, hard-to-please marker, or the man flu you couldn’t shake for a month in second year.
Alternatively, maybe first year could be valued with financial incentives. At some colleges in Oxbridge, for example, the highest achieving first years are given the nicest rooms the next year. This sort of approach makes a lot of sense. The way universities are throwing scholarship money at prospective undergraduates in an attempt to lure overqualified students is immoral. These funds should be redirected towards the hardest working first years – students who actually chose to study at the university in the first place and weren’t bribed to do so. Giving £500 to anyone who manages a First and perhaps £250 to those that get a 2.1 seems like a good policy. Universities might even save money as some of the scholarships they offer to new students at the moment amount to thousands of pounds.
Failing any kind of reform, I would urge employers to pay more attention to those invisible first year marks that most probably don’t declare on their CV. If you have two similar candidates boasting 2.1s the first thing you should be doing to distinguish between the two is to check whether either was guilty of the “40% mentality” in their first year – forget the DofE award. If one candidate did only scrape a pass while the other was pretty solid, you sure as hell know who’s going to be the one pulling sickies, and leaving the office mid-email when the clock strikes five.