Alan Ryan

October 7, 2005

'What might we sensibly do about reforming degree classification? What we could usefully do, as usual, is steal the Americans' clothing'

Our 'ancient' degree system is no such thing, and tripartite grading - pass, fail, distinction - offers little improvement

I was splashing quietly in my bath when it occurred to me how much easier it would be to move heavy objects if we rolled them on some sort of cylinder rather than having parties of slaves haul them around on skids. When I put this thought to my wife, she mentioned that the wheel had been in use for some time and that it sounded as though my brain had not been.

The proposals for changing degree classifications recently put to Universities UK resemble my bath-time musings. Predictably, they have been greeted by educational correspondents as a change to a "centuries-old" system of awarding degrees. Given that until the 1820s there were only a couple of English universities and that Oxford got round to having any serious examinations only in the first two decades of the 19th century, "centuries-old" is an exaggeration. They ordered these things differently north of the border, but the Royal Commission of 1826 found that most Scottish universities operated as a form of adult educational cafeteria, where the only contract was between a professor delivering a class and attendees handing him a fee. The idea that students anywhere came out neatly labelled first to pass is far from reality.

The truly distinctive feature of the Scottish system - transmitted to the Commonwealth universities and in a modified fashion to the US - was and is the distinction between a three-year ordinary degree and a four-year honours degree. That was one of the inspirations for another of the lost dreams of the new universities of the 1960s - the idea that students should get a broad education for the three years of a BA and then take another year to get a masters in something in particular. Its modern shadow is the sense among students that once everyone has a BA, you need to differentiate yourself in the job market by getting an MA - not the same thing.

Still, there's no point lamenting the road not taken. What might we sensibly do about degree classification? Not, I think, Professor Burgess's tripartite pass, fail, distinction. All the argy-bargy at the 2.1/2.2 borderline would recur at the two borderlines his proposals leave us. What we could usefully do, as usual, is steal the Americans' clothing. An American student may - at the University of Michigan, for instance - join an honours programme, but that means joining a programme for what the university believes to be the brightest students who will benefit from a particular kind of liberal education. A degree with honours is just a degree with a commendation from your teachers.

Honours are generally given to between a quarter and a third of graduating seniors, on the strength of more than an excellent grade point average.

Certainly if you got straight As you would get honours, but you would not necessarily come out with a summa . To get honours, you need to do work that impresses your teachers as being intellectually distinguished, not just the fluent recitation of what you can find in the textbook. Within the honours category, you can get one of three grades: cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude . Top honours are awarded with some care, but not getting honours is no particular issue - good scores in the Graduate Record Examination matter more if you are going on to graduate work.

And in the background is the GPA, your grade point average, computed on a running basis semester by semester; and because it is a nice numerical entity, it establishes a rank order - the famous "rank in class", also computed semester by semester and quite useful for seeing whether students have shot up the ranks or slid down. Some universities claim not to compute rank in class, because like the schools in Lake Wobegon they find all their students to be above average; they are usually fibbing, because it is almost impossible to stop the computer calculating rank in class. What they mean is that because students at universities such as Harvard or Swarthmore can end up in the bottom quartile of the rank order there for work that would put them in the top tenth almost anywhere else, it is unfair on them to give out their rank in class. It is; a good many American high schools refuse to release rank in class for the same reason.

So, there on the shelf is the system we need. It is not entirely suited to universities such as Oxford that are addicted to forms of assessment that involve sudden-death examinations after three years, but the basic idea of a degree with a magic number such as a 3.6 GPA (a bit below A-) attached or not to an honours classification and backed by a transcript, is perfectly adaptable. It is not entirely unlike what happened for several decades in the 19th century, when most graduating students got a pass, and the only interesting class of honours was the first.

Alan Ryan is Warden of New College, Oxford.

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