Bob Burgess: I hope student records make degree classes obsolete

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The Independent Online

In the next academic year, many universities will pilot new records of student achievement that could replace our 200-year-old system of degree classification.

Eighteen higher education institutions have already been running pilots of the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) in seven subjects over the past year. These have worked well. Now they are moving to the next phase, where I hope many more institutions will create an achievement report for all their students graduating next summer.

By 2011, the Burgess Implementation Group, which I chair, is aiming to have the new system fully up and running so that all students will have a detailed record of their achievements in higher education in addition to the current classification of First, 2.1 and so on.

You might ask: "Why the big change when the present system has served us for so long and is easy to understand?"

The main reason is that higher education is trying to modernise itself to meet the changing needs of students and employers.

Reform of degree classifications has been on the agenda since the late Lord Dearing said that it had "outlived its usefulness" 12 years ago. Since then, the number of students has increased by over half a million, and, more important, the cost of studying for a degree has risen markedly. The Government is also about to begin a review of tuition fees that could bring about a further increase in costs for many students.

At the same time, the range of courses on offer, methods of studying, and types of institutions running degree courses have broadened to a point where quality watchdogs, and some politicians, have begun to question standards and how different degrees compare.

With a growing number of graduates gaining First and Upper Second class degrees, some have raised concerns about what they see as grade inflation. Employers and professional bodies, too, have been calling for reform. They say they want more information about the content of courses, students' strengths and weaknesses, and the full range of skills and experience that students gain during their time at university.

The Government is therefore encouraging universities to work more closely with business and industry to ensure that higher education is turning out the kind of graduates that employers need, and that students are gaining the knowledge and attributes that will enable them to help build a stronger economy and enhance their prospects.

Against this background, it has become increasingly clear that our system fails to provide the information about a student's achievements required by just about everyone with a stake in today's higher education system. This is why the Burgess Group recommended introducing the achievement record.

We expect it to be very popular with students. After all, if they are going to have to invest more in their higher education, they are entitled to receive more in return than just a single number to sum up three years of work, experience and achievements at university. The record will provide details about a student's course, the marks they have gained in individual modules, and a record of extracurricular activities and achievements that can be verified by universities – for example, prizes, employability skills courses and positions held such as course representative or student union officer.

During the piloting of the HEAR at my own institution, we have been looking at including things like work our students do as university "ambassadors" at open days and in visits to local schools and colleges, alongside assessed activities such as team challenges and business games designed to help them prepare for the world of work.

Another feature of the HEAR that should make it attractive to students and employers is its versatility and portability. It will be an electronic document, which means that details can be added as a student progresses through their course, even if they transfer from one institution to another. It will therefore be very easy to send to prospective employers, so helping in the selection process for graduate jobs. In the long run, it could become part of a continuous record of achievement charting education from school to higher education.

Of course the HEAR is still in development, and a small number of questions about how it will work remain, such as how to record extracurricular activities that are not verified by universities. But I am confident that there is enough support behind it for us to find a solution to issues like these. Once we have it in place, the big question that remains is whether it will make degree classifications obsolete. I hope we will not have to wait another two centuries for that to come about.

Professor Bob Burgess is vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester and chairman of the Burgess Implementation Group