Leader: Marks can break degrees impasse

November 9, 2006

The tripartite review of degree classifications had the smell of failure about it from the start - not because of any shortcomings on the part of Bob Burgess or the members of his scoping group, but because producers and consumers were so unlikely to agree on reforms. Neither side would deny that the system is creaking as more and more students emerge with upper-seconds. But employers and politicians still prefer the devil they know to the more complex transcripts that universities see as the natural alternative.

Professor Burgess's group cannot be accused of limiting the options put forward for debate. The latest proposal, to divide the 2.1, appears to have little support among its members, but has been issued for consultation nonetheless. Some employers may like the idea because any way of distinguishing between the legions of well-qualified applicants would be welcome, but it is hard to imagine the academic community agreeing. The problem is not a shortage of classes - there are six available if universities choose to use them - and adding another would be a time-consuming and merely temporary expedient.

A pass/fail system, with or without distinctions, is equally doomed, as the group appears to recognise. The contrast between a pass and a distinction would be too great and too mechanistic. And while the absence of any formal classification might work in other countries, it would not be accepted in the UK. Most recruiters of graduates would be unwilling to trawl through transcripts to build an accurate picture of potential employees and would fall back on cruder measures, such as A-level grades and university status.

The most likely outcome, therefore, remains the status quo, despite the firm views expressed over several years by Universities UK and by the Government in the 2003 White Paper that led to the current review. Yet the innovation that once appeared to be the favoured reform has dropped off the agenda with little explanation. That is the grade-point average, much used in US universities but shunned in the UK. Used to supplement existing degree classifications, with transcripts for those who would make use of further detail, it would provide simple extra information for employers without the need for legislation or multiple changes in university regulations. Students are already well aware of their average mark as they assess their chances of a good degree. To make this information available more widely would satisfy the demand for finer distinctions without disrupting a well-understood framework. A parallel debate has been taking place at A level, where much the same considerations apply. In both examples, the case against raw marks has yet to be made convincingly.

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