Degree classification: Have the Desmond and Vorderman had their day?

Universities are planning to get rid of degree classifications including the 2:2 and the Third and introduce a transcript listing students' achievements. But the big employers are against the idea. Nick Jackson reports
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It's music to any student's ears. The days of the dreaded "Desmond" are numbered and the time is coming when students will no longer be reduced to tears for fear of the "Vorderman".

Last Friday marked the end of the consultation period for plans to scrap degree classifications and replace them with a simpler distinction, pass, and fail system that would see those bogeymen of the ambitious undergraduate, the 2:2 (known as the Desmond Tutu) and the third (famously awarded to Countdown braniac Carol Vorderman) laid to rest for ever. Under the reforms, proposed by a steering group set up by Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals and chaired by Professor Robert Burgess, vice chancellor of Leicester University, simpler classifications are to be balanced with a transcript detailing students' achievements over the course of their degree.

Britain's six-tier system of degree classification has been under fire for more than a decade, but in the last two years criticism has intensified. In 2003 the White Paper on higher education called for a review of the system. It was decided that the grading of degrees needed to be radically overhauled. Part of the problem is that students are doing too well. Everyone, people say, gets a 2:1 these days. A little over half of all graduates in 2003/4 were awarded firsts or upper seconds. That means that more than 150,000 students now win awards introduced after the wars to earmark the few hundred students eligible for government funding of their postgraduate study. Last month a survey of 500 employers by travel company i-to-i found that nearly two thirds have difficulty differentiating between graduates because so many are getting top grades. Even the principle of grouping together students in classes has come under attack. It is said that it wastes three years worth of assessment in a single summative judgement and draws almost arbitrary lines between students under a system where two percentage points (between 69 per cent, an upper second, and 71 per cent, a first) can matter more than 20 (71 per cent and 91 per cent are both firsts). "It's an outmoded system that concertinas a student's learning experience into a single class valuation," says Professor David Vaughan, principal of Cumbria Institute of the Arts who sits on the Burgess group. "Higher education is more about a learning experience than training students or imparting knowledge. Our main aim is to give students, parents, and employers more information, something students can build on."

The Burgess group's recommendations would cap grade inflation by awarding distinctions to the top five per cent in each subject in each institution in each year. And the information previously wasted is to be published in the transcript. But for some academics, the reforms don't go far enough. "I would throw away all classification systems, including the distinction," says Professor Sir David Wallace, vice chancellor at Loughborough University. "They're unfair and unfounded. You lose information about the student by grouping grades in this way. Throwing away information like this is indefensible." Others don't see the need for reform at all.

"A class of degree is a reasonable summary of a student's achievement," says Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University. "It's an established currency." Time and energy should be spent instead on shoring up the distinctiveness of the first and upper second, he says. In his experience transcripts may provide more, but not necessarily better, information.

But the success or failure of these reforms will be decided beyond academe. In 1995 the Higher Education Quality Council under Professor Roger Brown tried to abolish the class system, but was blocked by industry. The attitude of many big employers is still that if it ain't broke, don't fix it, and both the Institute of Directors (IoD) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) have come out against the planned reform.

"Businesses are pretty happy with the existing system," says Richard Wilson, head of business policy at the Institute of Directors. " We don't see the case for change. Employers want to pick up an impression quite quickly and summative judgements let them do that." He adds that the new norm referenced distinction will be no substitute for the first, because employers look for applicants with particular skills not just the top of the class. And if anything, says Wilson, employers want more class distinctions not fewer, with a division of the upper second class degree to help distinguish between graduates.

Whether or not the transcript can replace, or even enhance, that judgement is what matters to employers. Many, including Caroline Raues, head of human resources for city solicitors Linklaters, do not think it can. "Our experience in Australia is that working through transcripts is tricky and time consuming," she says. "And the extra workload will be unmanageable for tutors. They won't be able to give us a real impression of a graduate's academic ability and make up for less differentiation in marks."

But some employers welcome the changes. Deborah Dalgleish, head of public relations at another law firm, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, believes that transcripts could fill gaps in a student's record that many firms already try to fill with lengthy application forms. "We're simply looking for as much information as possible about the student over the course of their degree," she says. "We're not wedded to classes of degree. There can be quite a difference in ability between a high 2:1 and a low 2:1."

Many employers are, like Dalgleish, concerned by the lack of information they have about graduate applicants' skills. But Susan Anderson, the CBI's director of human resources policy, does not believe that the proposed transcript is the answer. Information about a student's academic achievement is just not enough, she says. "The proposed transcript will only be of true value to employers if it includes information on work experience and an evaluation of employability skills, such as team-working and communication."

And it is hard to imagine all academics writing that up.

That is if the reforms are introduced at all, and that is still a long way off. Last Friday marked the end of only the first of two consultation periods and these reforms will not be introduced, if at all, for another two years. When they come, says Professor Vaughan, it will not be overnight. He foresees at least a brief transition period. Lord Dearing believes the transition will depend on a "coalition of the willing" running the new awards as pilot schemes.

The question is how many universities will dare to be among them. More and more young people sign up for a degree with an eye to the job they will get at the end. Until employers can be persuaded to embrace Burgess' proposals wholeheartedly, few students will be willing to gamble their futures on reform.

'With a transcript, you'd be able to show an employer you did well in the modules that matter'

Jamie Readon, 29, graduated with a First in digital art from Thames Valley University this year.

'I think a transcript would work better. Slapping a first or a 2:1 on your degree doesn't show you what you're good at. With a transcript, you would be able to show an employer that you did well in the modules that matter.'

Ben Ward, 21, is a third-year politics and economics student at Loughborough.

'The classifications system is unjust. It would be fairer if employers looked at a transcript. We need to recognise the skills that students develop during their time at university, rather than a faceless 2:1 or 2:2.'

David Rose, 25, graduated with a 2:1 in philosophy from Cambridge in 2002. He is on a graduate trainee scheme in London.

'Employers are looking for well-rounded individuals; your degree class doesn't matter. They're looking for relevant work experience, commitment to the profession, and that they're going to get on with you.'

Marilyn Thompson, 23, is a third-year theology student at Mansfield College, Oxford.

'Under the current system you can look at an essay and see what class it is. A distinction for the top five per cent seems a bit abstract. How will you know where you stand? And who's going to pilot this? In the first few years, when these graduates are competing with people with traditional class degrees, employers won't bother to look at students with passes.'

Amelia Scott, 23, is a fourth-year philosophy student at Birkbeck College, University of London.

'I'm not studying philosophy to get a better job, so what employers think of my qualification is irrelevant. I don't like the idea of the top five per cent getting distinctions. It would be about how much better you are, not how good you are. But I do like the idea of the transcript. It would tell me what I'd be best spending my time on studying after university, what my strengths are.'