UK degree classifications are no longer fit for purpose

The honours system has too narrow a scope and too few grades. Why not embrace the Hear and the GCSE scale, asks Zahir Irani

二月 28, 2023
Concept of a conveyor with graduates falling into waste paper basket to illustrate Traditional degree classifications are no longer fit for purpose
Source: Getty/Moor Studio

Santander, the global banking group, has become the latest major firm to drop its requirement that all its UK graduate hires should have at least an upper-second-class honours degree.

“Academic achievement is important, but it is only one of many factors we look at when searching for new talent,” Santander’s HR director, Anouska Ramsay, said. “We believe potential can be found anywhere, and this move reinforces our commitment to finding the best candidates from a wide range of backgrounds.”

Santander won’t be the last company to make a similar move – whether in the name of diversity and inclusion or something else. Attitudes to what traditional degree classifications really mean are changing. And rather than allowing a gradual collapse in confidence, universities need to play an active part in building an alternative that reflects the broader work they do in developing people and that better meets the needs of recruiters.

The grade inflation that occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t helped. Universities UK and GuildHE vowed that by 2023, the proportion of upper-second- and first-class degrees would be back in line with pre-pandemic levels, and the latest figures show that in 2021-22, the proportion of firsts awarded to undergraduates fell from a high of 36 per cent the year before to 32 per cent. But that still compared with just 28 per cent in 2018-19, and the proportion of upper seconds remained at the pandemic level of 47 per cent. Lower seconds and third-class degrees continue to be awarded only rarely.

The statement of intent to protect the value of UK degrees issued in 2019 by the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) is important for at least keeping assessment and classification under review and on the agenda. The statement commits the sector to ensuring “transparency, reliability and fairness in degree classification”, but the focus is on tuning up existing mechanisms and approaches that aren’t considered by many to be fit for purpose. Where’s the vision for the future and the acknowledgement of employers’ interest in equality and diversity?

Traditional UK degree classes are too broad and vague to be significant any more for sorting an increasingly diverse set of graduates into career echelons. Moreover, if the details of how the classifications are allocated at each university were widely known, employers might well raise concern over the differences among the regulations and algorithms used – there are all sorts of idiosyncrasies at institutional level that make comparisons of process and outcomes impossible.

To break from the limitations of old-style honour classifications, we need to be thinking in terms of the range of missions that universities have and the fact that students learn so many vocational and soft skills on top of what is contained within curricula and formal assessment processes.

There isn’t a single, immediate answer to what would be the most effective way to package up student qualities and potential in a way that works for all. We need ideas and movement towards consensus to create a genuinely high-value currency of assessment. But one way forward would be to start taking the Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear) more seriously.

Launched in 2012, the Hear still isn’t really understood or valued, either by UK employers or students. But it could be more formally reconstituted as evidence of graduates’ notable achievements and capabilities. It could even be rolled into the algorithms used for assigning degree classifications, significantly broadening their meaning. Credits could be awarded for each recognised Hear activity: learning data analysis skills, giving presentations, setting up a micro-enterprise, running social events, acting as treasurer for a student society or volunteering for community projects.

But would this really offer employers a more diverse range of top-scoring candidates – or would students from non-traditional backgrounds be just as disadvantaged in extracurricular activities as they are in curricular ones? Well, at Bradford, a large proportion of whose students come from non-traditional backgrounds, we see constant evidence of how less academically minded people will seize the opportunities that university life gives them to demonstrate their qualities in other ways or learn vocational-type skills through programmes such as our award-winning Career Booster scheme. They pitch themselves into organising clubs and societies, sign up for all kinds of opportunities that aren’t dependent on connections and generally take every chance to make themselves more employable while learning new skills. The Hear can be a channel for taking such efforts into account. 

Another approach to reforming assessment would be to widen what has become a very narrow spectrum of degree classifications and to introduce a more consistent form of grading across UK education. Why grade GCSE students from 1 to 9 but A-level students from U to A, BTEC students from fail to distinction and degree students from (in theory, at least) unclassified to first class? Why should employers have to unpick and compare so many scales? Degrees and other qualifications could usefully just adopt the more granular GCSE model – though, of course, there are many other possibilities.

Whatever the exact solutions, higher education needs to stay in tune with graduate recruitment policies as they evolve, and it needs to keep things simple. The mismatch between the degree classifications currently being offered and the diversity and inclusion agenda is now an obvious problem, and one that is only likely to become starker over time. Employers – and societies more generally – want capable people. And they want to be rid of any apparatus that appears to be a barrier to fair appraisal and progress.

Zahir Irani is deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford.



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Reader's comments (5)

This old chestnut again. I was not aware that "sorting an increasingly diverse set of graduates into career echelons" was the aim of degree classifications. Modern graduates get a transcript that shows their performance in different subjects, which is more than was the case when I graduated. Employers should design their own processes to select candidates rather than once again passing the cost of doing so to universities. Education and not training is the purpose of universities; so much is dumped onto them now without funding that yet another change will only add to staff dissatisfaction.
Could not agree more. The purpose of university is not to sort people into buckets for the convenience of employers.
Why not just publish the overall grade - as a percentage - that a student has achieved? You also need to remember that university student grades are 'absolute' - student attainment against a mark scheme. GCSEs and A-levels are 'relative' - it's the top n% who get a grade A, rather than all students who score above a certain mark.
Where in any of this does it say that Santander have lost faith in degree classifications ??? “Academic achievement is important, but it is only one of many factors we look at when searching for new talent,” Nope! “We believe potential can be found anywhere, and this move reinforces our commitment to finding the best candidates from a wide range of backgrounds.” Again no! Students have for several years now got a transcript of their studies, with a breakdown module by module. As for 'degree traditional degree classifications' and 'universities need to play an active part in building an alternative' that would be the Grade point average: GPA pilot project 2013-14 performed by Advance HE, with the aim of providing greater granularity. This was subsequently adopted by over 75% of HE institutions!
Hurrah! Great to see that the UKHE 'fiction factories' are going with the flow and proposing degrees should represent diverse skill sets that our multitalented consumers possess. Amongst the many readers of the THE, I have become increasingly concerned but inured to, the slide downwards in academic standards. For many, although not all, institutions the aim is to provide some sort of education that can be celebrated with a fatuous degree ceremony at the end. This regular little crowd pleaser is put on to ensure future generations of the gullible can be suckered into the system. The system seems quite resistant to collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions. So for the foreseeable future many institutions will continue to exploit the market and keep the cash flow going for its own sake. I refer to the HE institutions as fiction factories not because we are teaching a load of made up stuff (although that does go on) but because a substantial proportion of the qualifications we sign off on are a fiction. They do not truly represent the intellectual capability and quality of the awardee. I am at a loss why the body of serious academics in the UK do not rise up as one and proclaim the parlous state of undress of the whole show.