The Big Question: Should universities change the way they classify degrees?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

A report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) this week said that universities should overhaul their degree classification systems – as well as their examining methods and the information they give prospective students – in response to concerns about standards in universities. Although the Hefce panel of experts found nothing badly wrong in the higher education system, it did say that changes were needed. "We are clear that higher education cannot afford to be complacent on quality and standards," said Professor Colin Riordan, vice chancellor of Essex University and chairman of the group.

What's wrong with the system of firsts, 2.1s, 2.2s, and so on?

It has come in for a lot of stick over the past decade partly because of grade inflation, which has meant that two-thirds of all students graduate with a first or 2:1, leading to allegations of dumbing down. Critics ask what the classifications tell you now that so many do so well. In August this year the select committee of MPs looking at universities produced a blistering report that criticised higher education for "defensive complacency" and pointed to the fact that the number of first-class degrees has almost doubled in 10 years. While 53 per cent of students achieved a first or 2:1 in 1997, that had risen by last year to 61 per cent.

What could replace it?

For some years a group under Professor Bob Burgess, vice chancellor of the University of Leicester, has mulled over what to do. Change in higher education is always fraught and he has had to move carefully, mindful that universities move at a snail's pace and that many people, including employers, liked and understood the current system. His first report, published in 2004, said that the current system was "no longer fit for purpose" and argued that both students and employers deserved a better system that accurately captured students' achievements. This meant effectively moving towards a system more like that in the USA where students leave university with a transcript that lists their grade point average and what they have learnt.

Why are we only still discussing the idea?

The Burgess proposals met with resistance from some quarters, including some employers, and he had to take his time. His second report, which came out in 2007, suggested introducing a Higher Education Achievement Report by the academic year 2010-11 and running it alongside the existing degree classification system.

"The continued use of overall judgements such as upper second and lower second actively inhibits the use of wider information about students," he said. "Graduates deserve more than simply a single number to sum up their academic work when they leave university."

What happened to Prof Burgess's proposal?

It is happening slowly. Trials are taking place at 15 universities to test how the American system of transcripts could be applied to this country. The likelihood is that it will be up and running in a few years' time and that few tears will be shed for the two-century-old system of degree classifications. A year ago Burgess said that this system was in urgent need of modernisation.

"Every year, the case for a significant change grows stronger and voices for reform grow louder," he said. The recent report from the MPs' select committee was a case in point. It would have been much harder for them to make their criticisms had it not been for degree classifications and the accompanying charge of grade inflation.

What do the politicians think?

It has been the backbench MPs who have made the running with the issue. The first person to draw attention to the problem was Lord Dearing in his voluminous report on higher education in 1997. He said that "the honours classification system has outlived its usefulness". The proportion of students awarded firsts and 2:1s went on rising amid warnings that some graduate employers were rejecting the minority who achieve a 2:2, a grade that once would have been the most common outcome.

A report from the Quality Assurance Agency also argued that the grading system lacked the transparency necessary to compare degrees from different institutions. Higher education ministers were cautious about reform. In 2007, Bill Rammell, then higher education minister, said he believed progress could best be made by building on the current system "and certainly not by replacing degree classifications". That caution has now been overtaken by a new wave of criticism of the universities.

Will reform quell the universities' critics?

To some extent, it will. Without degree classifications, the charge of grade inflation will fall away. MPs will no longer be able to accuse universities of dumbing down. But, more importantly, the replacement of degree classifications with achievement reports should mean that students can provide much more detail on what they have learnt. At present, after three years' work, a relatively small amount of information is available on what a graduate has done and how well they have performed.

Won't the transcript amount to information overload?

This is the fear. Some employers like the fact that they can sum up a person with the simple phrase "upper second" and are worried at the thought of having to plough through a transcript. But they will have to get used to the change. Students, says Burgess briskly, need more than just a degree certificate to show for their outlay. Anyway employers are beginning to define more clearly the qualities they are looking for in graduates. Moreover, the educational achievement report will not be a lengthy document.

What will the Higher Education Achievement Report contain?

It will be electronic, allowing details to be added as students progress through their courses. It may contain information on a student's strengths and weaknesses in particular modules, qualities relating to project work, presentations, group work, dissertations and examinations. It also provides scope for students' extracurricular activities to be recorded, including volunteering, work experience and involvement in university societies.

Why is reform taking so long?

All reform takes forever in higher education. That's because universities are autonomous institutions and can only be persuaded to change – they can't be made to do so. Other reforms have also taken a long time, and some never see the light of day. The Postqualification Admissions system, beloved of politicians, which would have enabled students to apply to university after their A-level results, looks as though it will never happen. But the signs are that replacement of degree classifications will – if only because it really is in universities' interests to make sure that they reform a system that is working to their detriment.

Does the system need an overhaul?

Yes...

* The old system resulted in grade inflation and led to charges that degrees were dumbed down

* Students need to be able to show what they have done in and out of the classroom over three years

* Employers need to know more about potential recruits than the bare information, 'upper second'

No...

* Employers understand the current system and don't like the prospect of wading through a long report

* Students and parents know what they are getting and are suspicious of new-fangled reform

* How will the world at large be able to arrive at a quick impression of a graduate without a handy summary?

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