Too many students pass with honours

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The Independent Online
What is a graduate? Academics involved in a two-and-a-half-year study of graduate standards have had difficulty in deciding.

They have come up with a list of possible characteristics, such as the ability to analyse, investigate, create products. They also suggest that graduates might be emotionally resilient, enterprising, able to work in teams and to empathise. And, of course, they need a knowledge of their subject.

The difficulty, says the group in a report for the Higher Education Quality Council published yesterday, is that some of the attributes could equally well belong to people who have never been near a university.

While understanding the limits of a subject or knowing about contemporary research might be exclusive to graduates, critical and analytical skills are found at every level of education.

The group decided that it was impossible to come up with a single check- list of graduate characteristics, although they thought they did have something that other people lacked. Or rather they should have.

At present, the draft report says, some of those who get low-class or pass degrees do not possess distinguishing characteristics. It recommends a review of classification, establishing minimum standards which might mean that students who at present get thirds and passes would not qualify as honours graduates. There would be another system of awards below that threshold.

It is the first attempt to promote nationally acceptable thresholds in universities and to address concern about differing degree standards since the rapid expansion of the system.

Roger Brown, the council's chief executive, said: `We want to avoid the situation where certain degrees from certain institutions are not tradable currency. That is what is under strain."

Eighty per cent of students are now on honours degree courses compared with 40 per cent in the Sixties. "The balance of honours-level degrees ...seems out of line with the needs of an expanded higher education system," the report says.

It argues that there is no way of knowing "whether the standard of one degree in a given class in a given subject is comparable to that of another institution; still less whether there is comparability between subjects over the passage of time". Universities determine their own assessment policies but all use external examiners. The report says that the influence of external examiners has declined and needs strengthening.

Another proposal is that, to establish benchmarks for general skills, graduates might be given aptitude tests before going on to postgraduate study or employment such as those in use in the United States and in British business schools.

Professor John Stoddart, the council's chairman, said British universities might be accused of shooting themselves in the foot by posing some of the questions raised in the report. "Many other countries have blindfolds over their eyes. We have identified the challenges and that puts us far ahead of other countries," he said.