Lewis Elton, a leading educational innovator, has thrown his weight behind the idea of unclassified degrees supported by a detailed transcript that would give a descriptive account of a student's performance. He is calling on the Higher Education Quality Council to develop a national standard. In a letter to Roger Brown, chairman-elect of the council, he said the HEQC should persuade the Higher Education Funding Council to finance the project.
A spokeswoman for the HEQC said Mr Brown was interested in the proposal but may want to consider the extent of support for it among the academic community and the implications of HEQC studies of the external-examiner system before proceeding.
London, Exeter and Kent universities are already developing transcripts for their own degree documents and Bradford University is piloting detailed transcripts - modelled on the records of achievement used by schools - in five departments across three faculties. However, no university is prepared to remove classifications from its degrees unilaterally.
At the University of London, complaints from academics that the classification system had broken down prompted a review, which found no common standard in the assessment schemes of different departments for honours awards, and concluded that employers did not understand the one-line classification of the degree document.
Geoffrey Alderman, chairman of the university's academic council, said: 'The working party said students are badly served by this system, but we don't think the University of London can go it alone and abolish classification without disadvantaging our students.' Instead, London agreed to introduce transcripts alongside the degree classification by next year and committed itself to raising the debate nationally.
Representatives of more than 70 institutions at the recent conference mounted by Mr Alderman overwhelmingly agreed that changes to the classified honours system were needed, but had to be determined nationally. But Tim Boswell, the minister responsible for higher education, said that degree classifications did not have to be thrown overboard in order to introduce transcripts. 'There is a risk that if the system is shaken up too much, employers will revert to distinguishing between graduates and diplomates with reference to the standards required of them to enter university or college,' he warned.
Critics of the honours-classification system point to modular degrees and credit-transfer systems, which allow students to pick courses from different departments and carry their degree between universities, as the primary cause of its breakdown.
David Johns, vice-chancellor of Bradford University, said: 'Even in subjects like electrical engineering, there are so many routes through a range of modules that there are very few cases where all students are doing the same programme. It becomes very difficult to ensure that we are able to guarantee standards across all the programmes.'
Mr Alderman said that modular courses were also causing the external-examiner system to break down. 'In our degree board, 'modularisation' has meant that the external examiners have been asked to mark subjects in which they cannot have any expertise.' To operate the system properly for a modular degree involving three or four subjects, a separate external examiner would need to be brought in for each subject, which would be far too costly, he said.
Other pressures are also at work, according to Mr Alderman. 'There is the impact of the research councils no longer being concerned with whether a student has a first but with what kind of first they achieved,' he said. And increasing numbers of students attending European universities - which do not classify degrees - were coming back with a grade that did not correspond with marking schemes for honours classifications.
A requirement under the Data Protection Act 1984 giving students access to marks held on computer for more than 39 days was another stimulus for replacing classified degrees with transcripts, Mr Alderman added.
The academics' demands are causing consternation among company recruiters, many of whom use honours classifications to weed through large numbers of job applications. However, their leaders are divided as to what should be done.
The Confederation of British Industry is opposed to unclassified degrees, but is pushing another reform agenda of its own. It wants to see the core skills endorsed by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications - such as an ability to communicate, numeracy and leadership qualities - absorbed into degree courses and incorporated into standards for degree classifications.
Margaret Murray, head of the CBI's education policy group, said: 'Academics are coming at this problem from the wrong end. Transcripts are useful, but we need the first-, second- and third-class honours classifications as well. However, the criteria for classification need to be explicit so that a student can go to their don and say, 'What is a first and what do I have to do to get one?'.'
She said this approach, which would encourage students to see education as a lifelong process, should be backed up with transcripts that included a full record of a student's achievements - both academic and in the core skills - and an action plan that they could carry on into employment.
But Kate Tyzack, chairman of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, said: 'There is concern already as to whether a first from one university is equivalent to one from another. And there is growing concern that in these days of league tables there is a tendency to increase the numbers of firsts and upper seconds given.
'The transcript, or record of achievement, promises to be a better way because it gives more information. I don't think that degree classifications add anything.'
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