When back in 2004 the Burgess report's initial findings called the UK honours degree classification "not fit for purpose", there was little disagreement from the sector. There was, however, wariness. All agreed that whatever the system's shortcomings, the "brand" was strong and a shift to untested alternatives was just too radical a step.
The final report in 2007 reflected the sector's timidity. The system, it said, "cannot describe, and therefore does not do full justice to, the range of knowledge, skills, experience and attributes of a graduate in the 21st century". A more nuanced, contextual solution was needed.
And so it was that we got wishy-washy plans to record undergraduate performance in a Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear) along with sporadic accusations of grade inflation and dumbing down. When it is introduced, the Hear will offer lots of detail including extracurricular activities and work experience. Useful no doubt, but the fact is that nuance and detail are adored by those in education but deplored by an impatient outside world, especially that of work. Educators may want to give more, but employers just want a score.
Now, four years after Burgess, seven universities - all Russell Group bar one - have announced bold plans to sweep aside 200 years of history and replace the UK honours degree classification with the US grade-point average model. Because students will graduate into a global marketplace, the institutions argue, their record of undergraduate achievement must be easily understood across borders to ensure that they can compete for jobs. And a shift to the US system makes perfect sense, says David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, when it is renowned for having the world's best universities.
For the group mulling this change, a big problem with the honours classification is its bluntness; it splits graduates into "two tribes" - those with firsts and 2:1s and those with 2:2s and below. Quite rightly, they believe it is not the job of universities to sort graduates for employers. That said, the GPA will provide a layered and more finely grained assessment, they argue, complementing the information in the Hear. In reality, however, it is difficult to envisage graduate recruiters and employers poring over both measures unless to decide between candidates with similar GPAs. As David Docherty, head of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, says: "If you've got 40,000 people applying for your job, then (the Hear) is not what gets plugged into (employers') software, whereas the GPA is straightforward."
But there is more to the move than student employability. The institutions believe the switch will allow them to overhaul teaching, learning and assessment practices as well.
The inevitable debate will be welcomed by Sir Robert Burgess, vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester and architect of the Hear, who had such a frustrating time in 2007 trying to get universities to just this place. But from bitter experience, he knows the group must get others on board. With the prime movers being seven of the UK's leading universities popular with employers, the pressure on similar institutions to fall in line will be great. This game-changing step will provide a long-overdue jolt to a timid and sometimes shockingly complacent sector. In our new uncertain, shifting landscape, many will wish that they had started down this road four years earlier.