WHEN I was a student, it didn’t take binoculars to spot them. Usually by third year you could tell who was destined for a first. They weren’t the show-offs, who brayed as they read their essays or dropped impressive references in tutorials to show they’d been reading widely around the subject. No, this sort was more likely to end up on the benches at Westminster or Holyrood.

The seriously clever ones were obvious by their intelligence alone. They grasped a subject promptly and had a knack of finding an original angle. Often they studied hard, but not always. They weren’t swots so much as enamoured of ideas, eager to learn more and dig deeper. Brainpower bore no relation to background. The truly bright came from all classes, from council houses to country estates. Listening to them, you knew you were in the company of the next generation of professors. When finals results were posted, there might be a couple of firsts in each subject, but sometimes only one. They were spread as thinly as Marmite and were followed by a healthy but still select band of 2:1s.

After them came the common ruck of 2:2s and the ignominious, rueful, occasionally defiant thirds, most of whom had been having too much fun. This banding was a fair reflection of intelligence and application across the whole country, only a handful ever capable of attaining the highest grade. I don’t recall any of us resenting those who did well or thinking they did not deserve their first. It was simply the natural order of things.

Some years ago, all of this seemed to change. Come graduation day, friends and relatives began boasting how well their children had done, firsts and upper seconds no longer like Jaguars or Porsches, but as common as Ford Fiestas.

Had something been put into the water that improved the little grey cells? Had evolution made a quantum leap and produced a generation markedly smarter than its forebears? Or was it just becoming – whisper it for fear of sounding sour – much easier to secure a good degree?

Now we learn our suspicions were right. It wasn’t something in the water but a deliberate strategy by universities to manipulate results to make their (expensive) courses more attractive. In other lines of work that would be called mis-selling, or even fraudulent because students, not to mention future employers, are knowingly being misled about their abilities and prospects.

According to a recent report called A Degree of Uncertainty by the think tank Inquiry, the pace of up-grading has been swift. Last year 26 per cent of UK university students got a first, compared with 15% in 2012. Since 2012, the University of the West of Scotland and Southampton Solent University both more than quadrupled the number of firsts awarded.

Apprehension about potential recriminations over recent lecturer strikes might mean that this year’s final students do even better. In 1995, the national level of first-class degrees awarded was eight per cent.

Reform is urging universities to go back to 1990s standards, where 10% got firsts, and 40% had 2:1s. The question is: who will be brave enough to start rationing its premier grades now the genie is out of the bottle? Students today are savvy customers as well as scholars. In the hunt for best value for money, knowing as they do the impact their degree could have on their future, who would willingly enter an institution that assures applicants it will be rigorous in its marking?

Sadly, the unholy pairing of high fees (in England and for non-EU students throughout Britain) with inflated degrees should not come as a surprise. The minute a hefty price tag is put on a degree, a confetti shower of gold stars and rosettes is close behind. Intellectual achievement is now seen as a commodity rather than as an expression of cleverness and character. But employers are not being fooled. Some are so disenchanted by the mismatch between interviewees and their purportedly stellar results they have started to disregard degrees when selecting graduates. You don’t need to be a genius to realise that universities identified as doling out firsts like smarties are effectively making their students less rather than more employable.

After all, nobody believes in near-universal brilliance. Across the country these past few years parents must have been sneaking a glance at their semi-literate or slow-witted kids thinking: how did they pull that off? Their children are probably asking the same question.

This upgrading trend is only the most recent manifestation of the idea that almost everyone can go to university; that competition and elitism are outdated and that on sports day or school prize night everyone must be a winner.

The concept of real distinction, of intellectual excellence, is increasingly a thing of the past. No matter that reality TV revels in its parade of stage-struck wannabes who are ruthlessly hired or fired according to looks, talent and popularity. In the real world, a once reliable way of expressing the difference between the exceptional and the run of the mill is becoming defunct. In the long run, how clever is that?