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Do high distinctions matter?

Date
How much will grades matter for these graduates?

How much will grades matter for these graduates?

Are university grades still as relevant for employers when hiring people? Does the university and course reputation count for as much? And will employers place even greater emphasis on skills beyond academic achievement in coming years?

These are critical questions as Australia hurtles towards university-fee deregulation, and the prospect of sharply higher fees in some courses, pending Senate negotiations. I doubt business has given anywhere near enough thought to the ramifications of the proposed changes.

Google said last year that high grade point averages, on their own, were a poor predicator of career success. 

Take academic achievement as an example. Google said last year that high grade point averages, on their own, were a poor predicator of career success. Good marks still matter. But more important is learning agility and other emotional-intelligence traits. Brand-name colleges matter less because Google knows the best talent often comes from unusual sources.

I couldn’t agree more. Some of the most creative and innovative students I have taught over the years scraped into university, struggled with academic learning and grades, yet excelled in entrepreneurship courses. Companies that focus mostly on grades when recruiting would never have hired them.

Also, I’ve become more concerned about university grading systems over the past few years. With some universities reducing the threshold for grades, a high mark ain’t what it used to be.

Consider the student who scores 57.5 per cent. After rounding, his or her 58 per cent score is two marks below the 60 per cent threshold for a credit grade, which used to be 65 per cent until the university lowered it. Being two marks below the threshold means he or she can have a major piece of assessment remarked, so it could be lifted to 60 per cent.

So the student who almost fails now gets a credit grade. Meanwhile, the student who scores 70 per cent (previously a credit) is bumped up to a distinction, in a depressing upward spiral of academic grade inflation.

Thankfully, not all universities mark like this and smart employers look well beyond grades when recruiting. Still, marking seems softer than it used to be, and business is the poorer for it. I suppose that is an inevitable outcome of students seeing themselves as the university's customers.

Now, fast forward a few years and assume fee deregulation, in one form or another, is part of the landscape and students are slugged with significantly higher university fees for some courses.

How many universities will fail a borderline student who drops $60,000 on a course? How many students will expect higher grades and take more action if a mark disappoints, given their bigger investment? Will grading bell-curves flatten? And what if teaching standards underwhelm students, or they don’t like a lecturer or tutor? Refunds, anyone?

The risk is that marks could become even more blurred and less relevant to business when choosing between graduates. Why would young people pay so much money to earn a degree in a field that is vastly oversupplied, and slog their guts out to achieve high marks, if there is less differentiation between top and bottom students, and potentially lower failure rates? And less chance of getting a job in their chosen field upon graduating.

Something has to give.

Don’t take this column as only attacking universities. Business is as much to blame for the mess of loading young people up with debt to become overeducated for jobs that no longer exist in nearly the same quantity. By outsourcing too much learning to universities, many businesses have lost the art of training people “on the job”.

We need more Australian companies to start a debate about whether there are better learning models beyond university. More companies need to launch innovative internship programs, and formalise and commercialise their training. And more entrepreneurs need to spread the message that university is not for everyone.

Most of all, we need students to see academic achievement as only part of the recruitment puzzle. Yes, a sustained pattern of high marks at school and university, across many courses, is still a terrific asset to sell oneself to employers. But it’s a lot more powerful as part of a palette of learnings that could include part-time work, volunteering, travel, starting a micro-venture or other experiences that demonstrate an ability to adapt, lead and learn on the fly.

If business wants gradautes who are highly creative, innovative and entrepreneurial, it should insist that the institutions training young people deliver on this. And that there are systems in place to identify true creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial traits in students, beyond the antiquated pass/credit/distinction scorecard, given the growing importance of learning agility in an online world.

If we don’t, more students will be funnelled in and out of university with not enough to show for it – other than horrendous debt. That will be disastrous for Australian business in the long run.

What do you think? Do university grades matter?

72 comments so far

  • Gee, I hope with my hard-earned 70% average (Credit, not Distinction) and soon to be graduate that grades don't matter so much. A lot of people I know kill themselves to get Distinction or High Distinction averages in much harder courses because they believe it's going to have some outcome when they graduate.

    Commenter
    Bertie
    Date and time
    August 14, 2014, 7:33AM
    • As an employer, and graduate, grades are irrelevant, unless you're talking a profession in the sciences. What's important in getting a job is that the employer knows that you've had the drive, and brains, to complete a degree. After that, everything else comes into play. The most important thing will be your fit with the organisation.

      Commenter
      Strahany
      Date and time
      August 14, 2014, 7:41AM
      • Many students who obtain high marks do it by wrote learning. Superior Regurgitation can lead to high marks. They are educated to regurgitate than think for themselves.

        Commenter
        Kingstondude
        Location
        Malaysia atm
        Date and time
        August 14, 2014, 7:41AM
        • "Superior Regurgitation can lead to high marks. They are educated to regurgitate [rather] than think for themselves."
          So what is learning if not regurgitating 'facts'? And are you trying to tell me that 'knowing things' is not a requirement for learning?
          very odd view.

          Commenter
          James Moylan
          Location
          Lismore
          Date and time
          August 14, 2014, 10:20AM
        • @Kingstondude - I fully agree with you. Rote learning is all the rage, which is terrible for some degrees (but not so bad for others). I am a Computer Science student, and I would estimate that in my 3rd year courses at least 80% can't code (not even at a basic level). Yet, due to rote learning most students pass exceedingly well. An inability to think innovatively and to implement ideas as code is damaging to the computer industry, yet it is fostered by the universities.

          Commenter
          Jimbo
          Location
          Brisbane
          Date and time
          August 14, 2014, 11:12AM
        • Let's face it you didn't get a good grade.

          What's the difference between getting a good grade or the best possible grade during your time as a student by devising a strategy, schedule, implementation, and execution to achieve your goal. Isn't that strategy, schedule, implementation and execution is thinking for yourself? Your teachers and parents isn't going to that for you!

          You may saw one textbook graduate, doesn't mean everyone is like that! Even that textbook graduate may have devised a strategy, schedule, implementation and execution. That itself is thinking!

          Commenter
          Gerson
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          August 14, 2014, 12:33PM
        • @Jimbo - you didn't get good mark as well?
          Heard of Donald Knuth, i don't think he's much of a programmer as well. You on the other hand generalized computer science = programming. Is that what you think, computer science is about programming? That's pretty disappointed!

          Commenter
          Gerson
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          August 14, 2014, 12:58PM
        • "wrote learning"? *facepalm*

          Commenter
          Candice
          Date and time
          August 14, 2014, 1:26PM
        • @Jimbo - I did Computer Science, I don't think it's so much that rote learning is the problem (It's hard to memorize/regurgitate solutions to Maths problems). I did notice there was a heck of a lot of code 'sharing' going on, and a heck of a lot of students who would sit there and stare blindly at the screen when asked how their programs actually worked. How they passed I don't know.

          Commenter
          warped
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          August 14, 2014, 4:50PM
        • Abbott for sure was a Rhodes Scholar average and Hockey's law of economics is gobbledygook. In some profession that requires ability to synergise technical contents, you will need high analytical skills which can be developed through entrench application during your university studies like law, medicine, and science. Perhaps a high distinction is akin to saying 'money is a good measure of one's happiness' but in professional career, having a high distinction is an advantage more than a disadvantage but perhaps in politics - a bare minimum of literacy would suffice.

          Commenter
          Jane
          Date and time
          August 14, 2014, 4:53PM

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