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Should British universities grade students using an American-style system?


It has taken almost a decade of discussion, but it appears that the time has come for reform of degree classifications.

If a pilot being run by the Higher Education Academy produces a workable solution, it will be goodbye Firsts, 2.1s and 2.2s, and hello to the US-style grade point average (GPA).

"I think it will get through this time," says Professor Sir Bob Burgess, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester and the man overseeing the pilot with an advisory group. "The 200-year-old system has outlived its usefulness and is no longer fit for purpose."

Many other university bosses agree, as do employers' organisations. The Universities minister David Willetts is also supporting reform. But not everyone is so keen. A number of traditional universities, notably Oxford and Cambridge, cherish the British degree classification system and hold the First-class degree – achieved by Prime Minister David Cameron – close to their hearts. A spokesman for Oxford says: "We have no plans to consider GPA at this time." A Cambridge spokesman gave the same response.

Moreover, the National Union of Students (NUS) is anxious about the change, and passed a motion at its annual conference in April 2013 saying that it would only support reform if most universities adopted the GPA at the same time, and if a range of institutions did so. It said it would campaign against change until it was represented on the advisory group.

"A year ago, eight student unions relayed their concerns to us about moving to a GPA system," says Rachel Wenstone, NUS vice president, who sits on Burgess's advisory group. "I want to check that some of the practical issues are being dealt with in any reform, and I want student unions to be involved."

Universities are famously resistant to change and the ancient universities especially so. "I am always a bit sad when practices drop into history and are never heard of again," says David Palfreyman, bursar of New College, Oxford. "The Oxford First is a cultural thing, but higher education is globalised now. We are serving a clientele that is going to be seeking jobs around the world, so for us to be babbling on about quaint Firsts and Seconds is perhaps a bit beside the point."

The reformers regard the current system as too crude, too much of a blunt instrument, and believe an American-style system would give better information to employers and be fairer to students. Instead of a simple number to represent a student's achievement, the GPA would give an average from grades achieved through the student's university course, resulting in a final GPA score.

Under the system being trialled, students can score from zero to 4.25, the top score equal to a high First. A 3.75 would be equivalent to a low First and a 3.50 would be a good 2.1. Zero would be a fail.

"Although the UK honours degree is a robust and highly valued qualification, it is clear that it needs updating and that graduates deserve more than simply a single number to sum up their academic work when they leave university," says Burgess.

The current system, established 200 years ago by Oxford when there were small numbers of undergraduates, makes it difficult to differentiate between students, according to employers. Large numbers of students now come out of university with a 2.1. which fails to distinguish between someone who attained 60 per cent and another who achieved 69.9 per cent.

Employers want to know whether candidates came at the low or the high end of a classification. The GPA would give that extra detail, showing students' average grade to two decimal points as they proceed through their degree. In a competitive job market, employers want more information about the candidates they are considering for jobs.
"They have very little to go on at the moment," says Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. "When they are trying to work out which students to call in for interview, they need information that will help them to make that decision."

Students themselves complain that the present system is unfair. That is because at some universities, different departments have differing policies. Students in one department can find their marks upgraded by 2 per cent if they are considered to be on the borderline of a 2.1 and a First. Students in another department do not get that uplift, with consequent effect on their career prospects.

The current system also divides students into two groups – those with a 2.1 and above, and those with a 2.2 and below. Students in the latter category often feel they have failed. One of the advantages of the GPA is that it avoids these "cliff edges" between degree classifications, offering a smoother and more continuous scale.

Another benefit, say the supporters, is that it makes the final degree score more transparent. It also enables international comparability of degree results: the USA, Canada and Asia all use the GPA.

Students would have more incentive to work hard at all stages of their degree to achieve the best final mark, and reform would enable universities to resist pressures towards grade inflation. It would also give universities the opportunity to take a hard look at their teaching, learning and assessment practices.

Given the overwhelming case for GPA, it may seem odd that it has taken so long for reform to happen.

First time around, when Burgess chaired an inquiry into degree classifications, the world of higher education resisted reform on the grounds that there was no agreement about which GPA system to use.

This time, however, the aim is for the pilot of 21 universities and colleges to work out a GPA system that fits the UK higher-education landscape. A great debate is being sought on the change. If the pilot is successful, reform should gain momentum, and a small number of universities would first run the current system alongside GPA in summer 2014.

Burgess's advisory group will make recommendations, and by the summer of 2015, reform should be gathering pace. By 2020 he expects virtually all students graduating from a UK university to be given a grade point average. Oxford and Cambridge may take a bit longer. But even they are expected to make the change eventually, if not First.

To contribute to the debate on assessment, please email gpa@heacademy.ac.uk

"GPA would be an incentive"

Samuel Osborne, 20, is in his third year of a degree in psychology with cognitive neuroscience at the University of Leicester

I am hoping for a 2.1 because I want to do a Masters when I graduate. I would like a First but I am not sure I can quite reach that. One of the reasons I like the idea of the grade point average is that we have not been told our average so far on our course. We have been given our marks for each exam and for coursework but we don't know how that fits together into the big picture.

For students wanting to improve their grade it would give them a clear view of where they are currently, and an incentive to push for higher marks.

The problem with the current system is that it doesn't matter whether you get a high 2.1 or a low 2.1 (60 to 69.9 per cent) because the differences are not revealed. If you knew that you were on 65 per cent, say, it would give you an incentive to work harder and do better.

"It would be a system that people in other countries would understand"

Indigo Ellis, 20, is in her second year of a degree in French and history at King's College London

(Picture credit: Micha Theiner)

My degree is going well and I am really enjoying it because the teaching is so good. I dropped out of another university before coming here because I didn't like the teaching, but I love my degree now.

I think degree classifications need to be more differentiated and we need to be given more guidance on how to improve.

The GPA would give students more incentive to do better. At many universities the first year doesn't count towards your final mark, so it doesn't matter whether you do any work or not. That was the case at the university I left. I have friends at other universities around the country and they just mess around for their first year. Many have to do resits. They don't see the point. The GPA would mean they would want to work in the first year because their marks would count towards their final grade and they would be constantly aware of how they were getting on.

I think it would help to have a system that people in other countries understood, as that isn't the case now.