Leading article: Degree of difference

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The publication of today's report by Professor Bob Burgess spells the beginning of the end for degree classifications.

The publication of today's report by Professor Bob Burgess spells the beginning of the end for degree classifications. The system first introduced in Oxford at the beginning of the 19th century that gives an overall indication of a student's performance in terms of a First, Upper Second, Lower Second, Third, Pass and Fail has had its day and should be pensioned off. As Burgess explains, we now need a more detailed record of student achievement at a modular level. So many more graduates get Firsts and Upper Seconds now that these gradations have become devalued. What matters more is where you got your degree from. A First from Oxford is thought to represent a much higher standard than a First from the University of the Inner Ring Road. Moreover, research shows that it is much easier to get a First or an Upper Second in some subjects than others. In addition, universities differ in the way that they treat students on the borderline.

The way that students are assessed has also been changing. Most universities have adopted a modular system whereby students are taught in chunks and examined as they go along. Employers want to know in much finer detail what a student has achieved in their three or four years at university. The recording of this information in a progress file or portfolio would be of much more use to a prospective employer than a one-line degree classification. Progress has already been made to this end, with Lord Dearing recommending in his report that universities draw up such files.

Other developments are pushing the United Kingdom in this direction. In particular the Bologna accord requires universities to give students a diploma supplement on graduation. This is designed to describe the each student's qualification in an easy-to-understand way; in particular the nature, level and content of the studies undertaken. Universities should have it in place by 2005. The Burgess report suggests that in the medium term, perhaps by 2008, universities and colleges should develop a more detailed, electronic portfolio model. The recommendations, including credit systems that make it possible for students to break off their studies and start again, will now be taken forward by a steering group set up by Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals. The result should establish the basis of a new mass higher education system that is responsive to the needs of students and employers.