The British are not the only country where the academic achievements of public figures are a national obsession. The French are obsessed with the hierarchy of their “énarques”. The Germans regard a doctorate as an essential leadership attribute — and woe betide those whose dissertations turn out to have been plagiarised. The Americans adore graduates of the Ivy League, even though the rich can buy a place there.
Only in Britain, however, is the focus of admiration and envy the First Class degree. This year, as usual, there is a debate about grade inflation. The proportion of Firsts has doubled in just seven years, from 15.7 to 29.3 per cent since 2011.
Critics blame the trebling of tuition fees in 2012, since when universities have engaged in a bidding war to attract students. They do not want to be outdone by rivals who award more Firsts and 2:1s, so the algorithms that determine grade boundaries are tweaked.
But the blood, sweat and tears that go into a First — and the pride of parents — are not to be gainsaid. At Russell Group universities it remains the ne plus ultra of academic achievement. To achieve a good degree in a serious subject is still the mark of hard work and ability, so those who have just been awarded the highest honours deserve the praise and rewards in later life that go with them.
It is true that a generation ago, only some 5 per cent of undergraduates received this accolade; quite a few bright students who then had to be content with a Second would now probably have got a First. On the other hand, students in the humanities are now expected to write long dissertations to demonstrate their scholarship. Such a long haul demands both stamina and genuine originality to achieve the highest marks, not merely the quick-witted cleverness and eloquence that was once prized above all else.
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt typify the older style of student. The former took a Second in Greats (Literae humaniores, or classical literature, philosophy and history) at Balliol College, Oxford. The latter took a First in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at Magdalen College, Oxford. Both Balliol and Magdalen have been consistently at or near the top of the Norrington table of Oxford colleges, while Greats and PPE have been among the most popular degrees for future politicians.
Yet both degrees cover such broad fields that they encourage those who read them to spread themselves thinly, thereby rewarding a certain superficial brilliance rather than true mastery of the subject. We can see this clearly in the manner adopted by both candidates in the leadership debates. A good soundbite (“the hamster wheel of doom”) is more memorable than Boris’s incessant avoidance of questions or his infuriating vagueness.
At the time of writing, Andrew Neil has yet to test them with his half-hour interviews. These encounters resemble the one-to-one tutorials that still existed at Oxford when Boris and Jeremy were there, so they are well-trained. But such intense scrutiny is designed to detect bluffing and bluster. Neil will pounce on ignorance or muddle. If they can survive that, they can survive anything.
One of Boris’s jibes, directed at his rival, is “managerial”. This is coded academic snobbery, part of his elaborate defense mechanism to explain why Hunt got a First and he, Boris, did not. Working hard is the mark of a bore; really bright chaps can triumph without too much attention to detail. Hunt plays on this, too, by suggesting that Boris is amateurish and old-school, while he is the entrepreneur and professional. Boris may like to riff in Greek and Latin, but Jeremy speaks fluent Japanese and some Mandarin.
Boris is the ultimate generalist. This makes him a fine newspaper columnist and a good after-dinner speaker, but does he have the qualities of a statesman? His hero Churchill, too, was a great journalist despite never attending university at all. Churchill was an autodidact who carried on reading and learning new skills all his life. Boris’s cultural references all date back to his youth; he seems to have stopped absorbing new ideas after Eton and Oxford. That may be one reason why Boris has yet to demonstrate that, like Churchill, he can “mobilise the English language” in battle.
Still: in extremis (as he might say) Boris might be capable of uniting — or dividing — the country by his oratory. Hunt, for all his undoubted talents, will never do that. Rhetoric, though, is only part of statesmanship. The nation needs a first-class leader. He (or she) doesn’t have to have a First.