Ever been graded?

Sure you have! We all get graded all the time. Kindergarden, pre-school, middle school, high school, college, university, various certificates for having learned to swim, ride your bike or drive a car — grading has become one of societies great sports. More than that, especially in societies with a low degree criticism of the structure of society (and here I’m amongst others thinking of the country I currently reside in), it has become an entire ideology of itself: grading is seen as being a scientific activity done according to natural laws and any grade is dependent, and only dependent upon that which is being graded — subjective factors in grading do simply not exist. So if you get some grade from a school in some dinky place in northern Norway, that grade is directly comparable to another student might receive from a school in central Oslo. And more than that: according to this ideology, it is perfectly possible to accumulate grades across subject! So one can somehow say “student A with a certificate from a high school i central Oslo, who got A in math and B in French is a better student than this student B with a certificate from a high school in Tromsø, who got B in English and C in geography”. And people believe that is possible not only for high school, but also for college and university!

And once the grade has been handed out, one can then use it to objectively classify all students and either hand out salaries that correspond to the grades in case they take a job or in order to filter out the best if they choose to go on and take further studies.

Although I have always been highly critical of the first part, up until recently I had believed that at least the second part was one close to that way (although that does of course not make much sense given that the grade is not very objective to begin with).

But then I was called in to a meeting with the Central Admission Committee for bachelor studies of the University of Oslo in which I am one of two student representatives. The meeting was to decide upon the fate of a little more than 100 applicants for “selffinancing bachelor students”…

At first, we got to know that we had about 60 seats to hand out – “but we don’t have to hand them all out if we don’t feel the students are up to the right level,” as one of the members of the committee didn’t fail to mention. In addition one has to calculate with a large percentage of those applying not taking the offer if they get one — “of about 20 to 30,” as another member said. “So that means we can give out 90 offers?” I inquired. Silence. Then one person feeling responsible to break the silence answered: “well, let’s say at the max we can hand out 80 offers.” OK, I guess this is all about not letting too many students in for these guys.

Then we start going through the individual applications. One of the first applications is from a student from Africa with who already has some taken some studies. “A C from a polytechnical college in Togo [all countrynames anynomized]?” one of the other members blurts out, “No that is not really something that comes up to our standards.” “So what are our rules then? Does it say that C students from polytechnical colleges in Togo are not eligible?” I ask, “are there any ways to calculate what this grade means in Norwegian terms?” Apparently there is not. I request to put the application aside until we see how many other offers we give out first. One of the next is from another African country. It must be added that each of us only has a list with a transfer of the grades from the papers that came with the application. When another Afrian application comes up, again with grades that we have no realistic way of classifying, one committee member wants to take that students, but only if the applicant promises to bring his original documents to Oslo. “Can’t we contact the university?” — nope, universities often do not answer or require high fees, so that’snot an option. The next application is from a Chinese university, but the applicant hasn’t included the “gaw cow” (a term frequently heard that day- it’s some sort of standardized Chinese national test). What to do with it? Well, the grades are not that bad. It’s 108 of 150. “But that looks pretty low,” the member from the faculty that is to take the student in complains. “No, everything above a hundred is very good and is only given under very special circumstances,” another member of the committee argues. The students is being admitted. A few applicants further down the line another Chinese student has 136. “But that must be on a much lower level, ” the committee member who had not heard of that college before argues, “the other one was almost a key university.” ‘Key universities’ are something good, it seems.

And that’s how we go on through all applications — Pakistan, China, USA, South America and China. We continue handing out offers to some and not to to others in that fashion through the entire stack. There are arguments such as:

– Is 5,76 from a university in Vladivostok good?
– Well, that depends on whether they’re still using the 6-1 scale or whether they’ve gone to the 12-1 scale.
– Maybe all they switched while he went there.
– Yes, but why did they then calculate an average of all his grades?

Or:

– Wow, these are really good grades!
– Yes, and he lives in a neighborhood with lots of professors and other academic staff. There are really high chances for him finishing his bachelors if we give him an offer.
[the offer is given]

Although we were to give out 60 offers altogether across all subjects, informally the different subjects have made their own quotas of how many students they want to admit to the individual programs. So in reality many of the committee members sit there trying to argue in a way that will render them with the exact number of students they’d like to have. We start with A and go through to Z. But the applications are also divided into three stacks: the best, the ones in the middle and those with not all that good grades. Once we’ve gone through the first stack, we take a break so everyone can count. We’ve only given out about 55 offers so far. Everyone is quite excited; that is something new this year, usually they have to many offers by now. This means that now we can relax a bit on who can get an offer — too bad for those who barely made it into the best category and were discarded by us previously. Suddenly it gets a lot easier for me to argue fr various faculties to take in students without a background from elite universities.

Got disillusioned? There is no reason to believe that it is done in any different way when you as a Norwegian student apply at a university in another country. My advice can only be: apply often — if you throw a dice enough times, you’re almost certain to get a 6 at least once.

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