University degrees may be scrapped for US-style grades system

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The Independent Online

Traditional degree classifications which award students first, second, or third-class honours degrees should be abandoned, according to a report by university leaders.

Traditional degree classifications which award students first, second, or third-class honours degrees should be abandoned, according to a report by university leaders.

The 200-year-old degree classification system has lost meaning due to the numbers of students now awarded first class and 2:1 degrees, the report found. The advice is to introduce a new system which would tell employers more about students' achievements, strengths and weaknesses. The report was commissioned for Universities UK, a body which represents university vice-chancellors, and the Standing Conference of Principals, which represents leaders of higher education colleges.

Employers no longer rely on degree results as they believe them to be inflated and instead increasingly choose graduates according to which university they attended rather than how well they did in final exams, the report concluded.

Any new system must record all students' university achievements in an academic transcript which can be shown to employers, said the report. The degree classification system is believed to have originated at Oxford University at the beginning of the 19th century.

Professor Robert Burgess, the vice-chancellor of Leicester University and the author of the report, said: "In an era of mass higher education, where curriculum change has been massive, there is an urgent need to devise an assessment system that reflects students' achievements and provides a meaningful picture of their abilities to employers. We need to provide students with an appropriate award that will stand the test of time, in the same way as the honours classification system has served us for the past two centuries."

His report also recommended a switch to a credit-based system to allow students greater opportunity to switch universities and return to their studies after taking time out. This would be similar to the US system which uses grade-point averages.

The report also looked at alternatives including the pass/fail system in place in Scandinavia or a transcript approach which was formerly employed at the University of California Santa Cruz. The report concluded: "The existing honours degree classification system has outlived its usefulness." Kim Howells, the Higher Education Minister, said the development of a new degree classification system was a matter for the universities but welcomed any proposal that would lead to more flexible learning.

"The current degree classification system has been in place for around two centuries and served us well. But Professor Burgess and his group have reached a view that the current system is not sufficiently fit for the purpose and that it is time to consider alternatives. I welcome any proposals that will help to make learning more flexible for students. Credit systems, which make it possible to break off and start again without having to repeat learning, will become increasingly important as the routes into and through higher education become more varied."

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