Abolition of degree classification urged: Final grades are matter of chance, academic says

UNIVERSITIES should abolish degree classifications because they are a lottery, a leading academic said yesterday. Professor Geoffrey Alderman, chairman of London University's Academic Council, was speaking as support grows for plans to replace first-, second- and third-class degrees with a simple pass or fail and a transcript of achievement.

He told a conference: 'A lot of time is spent by examiners deciding what is the difference between a 2:1 and a 2:2. It is a matter of chance: whether the chairman of the board of examiners has had a bad night or whether there is time to remark the scripts.'

The secrecy of degree boards had been breached by the data protection legislation, he said, and students had to be given more information. Students would expect to know the rules by which they had been classified.

Cameras in degree boards would expose 'grave inconsistencies within subjects, within a university and between universities'. He had once asked the head of a French department how he identified a first-class script. 'That's easy,' came the reply. 'It reveals a certain je ne sais quoi.'

London University has already decided to supplement the degree classification with a detailed record of students' achievements and hopes the degree class will eventually disappear from the document.

But Tim Boswell, Under-Secretary for Further and Higher Education, warned that some employers were not happy about ditching degree classification before equally rigorous arrangements were in place. He backed the work on transcripts but added: 'You must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.'

He said: 'There is a risk that if the system is shaken too much, employers will revert to distinguishing between graduates or diplomates with reference to the entry standards required of them to enter their university or college. This would be a retrograde step.' It would severely disadvantage mature and part-time students and those with vocational qualifications. He said he was not against change and knew assessment techniques differed between subjects and universities.

Some employers say they do not want to spend time interpreting what different universities say in their transcripts, but Professor Alderman said the use of transcripts would raise standards. The crude degree class could be replaced by a document with details of individual subjects.

Margaret Murray, head of the Confederation of British Industry's education group, asked if it was possible to have a national standard for all degrees. She said academics should be able to tell students what they had to do to get a first. 'Standards must be defined in justice to and for the benefit of undergraduates.'

So what are the essential ingredients of a first class script? According to Professor Alderman, in his subject, history, they are 'a script that sparkles in a literary sense, that has a beautiful turn of phrase and that represents concepts in a very crystal- clear, precise fashion'.