Leader 1: No consensus on degree reform

September 30, 2005

Discussions on the reform of the UK's creaking degree classification system have been taking place inside the Burgess Group for almost two years; vice-chancellors had agreed to do something about it several years before that. But even after this week's report, there is no immediate end in sight. The group favours a shorter summative scale backed up by detailed transcripts, but it will also be consulting on a quite different approach. While most observers agree that the current classifications are no longer fit for purpose (if they ever were), there is no consensus on what should take their place.

Part of the problem lies in confusion over who and what a degree classification is for. The main users of the information are employers, who want a succinct summary of a graduate's ability but will usually have little interest in, or possibly understanding of, the finer detail of academic achievements. Students and universities, on the other hand, may be reluctant to reduce three or four years' work to a single crude and uninformative figure. The Burgess Group's preferred solution is to reduce the headline classification from a notional six-point grading system to three. With distinctions limited to perhaps 5 per cent of the cohort and relatively few students failing after completing a full degree course, the vast majority would simply pass. That, in the view of the group, would "force" employers to identify, consider and use much more detailed information in an accompanying transcript, which might include extracurricular activities. A more likely interpretation is that while distinctions would carry a huge premium, pass grades would be ignored as a selection tool by many employers, who would fall back instead on A-level grades and a pecking order of universities. Some already do this and it is fair to assume that only those in specialist employment fields would wade through transcripts at the vital shortlisting stage.

Employers' dissatisfaction with the current arrangements lies not in a desire for much more detailed information, but in frustration at the lack of differentiation brought about by years of grade inflation. If results were still distributed throughout the full six points of the honours system, there would be no demand for change from outside universities. Any new system should aim to restore that range, or at least move in that direction. Transcripts are valuable as a record for the graduate and for employers who want a more detailed account of a candidate's qualities, but they are not a workable alternative to the current classifications.

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