Education: Marked for life by an unfair degree: Julia Llewellyn Smith reports on moves to change how students' performances are graded by universities

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The Independent Online
OF THE thousands of students who will soon be receiving their finals results, only a small proportion will collect first- or third- class degrees; last year, the figures were 9.1 per cent firsts and 6.2 per cent thirds. For most, three years' effort will be rewarded with a second-class degree.

Many students believe this system does not do them justice. They say an overall class mark cannot indicate particular parts of their degree where they shone. Nor can it distinguish, for example, between those who just missed a first and received a 2:1 at the top end of the scale, and those whose 2:2 was only just below 2:1 level.

However, following an investigation into the degree classification system by a group of academics at London University, the situation there is to change. Last month the Working Party on the Classification of First Degrees presented a report to the university's Academic Council, which has accepted its main recommendation.

According to Geoffrey Alderman, who chaired the inquiry, there are three main problems with the current system. He believes there is a stigma attached to getting a 2:2 that can significantly affect a graduate's career prospects, and that those who just missed a 2:1, by perhaps 1 per cent, are being unfairly disadvantaged.

'It's often rough justice,' he says. 'There are so many borderline cases, particularly in humanities and the social sciences. The difference between a 2:1 and a 2:2 can be wafer thin in subjects where there is a great degree of subjectivity. A graduate with a 2:2 is marked for life.'

This, according to Professor Alderman, is only part of the problem: the rest is secrecy. The workings of examination boards are shrouded in mystery. Degree classes are not based on any overall criteria. 'Most people outside the university system, particularly employers, simply do not understand what getting a 2:1 in History in any particular university actually means.'

It is impossible to compare the standard required to get a 2:1 in Physics with that for a 2:1 in English. 'I think there must be much more openness about how classifications are arrived at,' he says.

His hope is that exam boards will publish what is needed in different subjects so that students will know what is expected of them. 'A-level boards list what a candidate is expected to achieve to get a certain grade. Why can't universities do the same?' he asks.

Professor Alderman would like to see Britain move more into line with the rest of Europe. 'The vast majority of European universities give students a transcript with the grades they accumulated in the various parts of their course, at whatever point they exit from universities. Our students are disadvantaged in Europe because they have nothing similar to offer.' The same is true for the United States, where students are given a grade point average.

A move to change the British system seems inevitable, with the introduction of schemes such as Erasmus, which allow European students to complete different parts of their studies in different countries, and the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme, which will let British students start a degree at one college and end it at another. All these defy the rigid class hierarchy. Moves towards modularisation of degrees will also pull institutions towards a more credit-based structure.

'When employers see the run of marks over three or four years, they will be able to see areas in which a student shone and borderline cases will be obvious,' says Professor Alderman.

Following acceptance of the working group's report, all London University students will in future receive such a transcript as a matter of course. Eventually, Professor Alderman would like to see the class system abandoned altogether, although he says: 'I don't think London University could go it alone.' His hope is to spark off debate among academic institutions and employers.

Reaction to a draft copy of the report from bodies such as the Law Sociey and the CBI has been favourable, the professor says. Employers, it seems, would welcome more information on potential applicants. Critics of the proposal say the merit of the old scheme is simplicity; if it can be unfair, then so can life. Also, if the present system were abandoned, those with the old type of degree would be at a disadvantage.

The Association of Graduate Recruiters welcomes the proposals, but has recommended that transcripts be available not just after graduation but at any point in a student's career. A spokesman said that while students with 2:2s might have difficulties pursuing an academic career, most employers were more interested in an extra- curricular activities than in degree class.

But Rob Bellis, Senior Graduate Recruitment Manager at KPMG Peat Marwick, the accountancy firm that recruits around 800 graduates a year, says candidates are judged mainly by degree class, although this must lead to the loss of some potentially excellent employees. 'You see the agony in the face of a person in an interview who says 'I only just missed a 2:1'.'

Mr Bellis would welcome the move to provide more information about job applicants. But, he adds, there will always be the problem that graduates from some institutes of higher education, and from some degree courses, are favoured over others. 'There is a certain cachet attached to degrees from certain places.'

It seems that however many polytechnics gain university status, Oxbridge still rules.

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