Leader: Missing out on a first-class opportunity

October 19, 2007

It is hard not to feel sorry for the authors of the Burgess report. Asked to address a perceived problem with the degree classification system, they duly did so - only for their proposals to be misreported before publication, their findings condemned as pusillanimous afterwards, their powers of recommendation widely confused with implementation and the premise on which the whole expedition was founded called into question by those employers and universities who, after three years of reflection, decided to stick with nurse for fear of worse. Robert Burgess must be hoping that his next assignment will be something more amenable to resolution: curbing binge drinking in British culture, perhaps, or cold fusion.

Given the undoubted opposition to reform, it is legitimate to ask if there is, in fact, a problem with degree classifications. If a solution is so difficult to find, was the problem overstated?

Professor Burgess had few doubts. He declared in his interim report that degree classifications were "not fit for purpose". The National Union of Students appeared to think so, too, as did the many employers who said that they were having difficulty sorting the best from the good in a system that now awards the top two grades to 60 per cent of graduates. The Quality Assurance Agency also thought the existing classifications had had their day, pointing out earlier this year the massive grading disparities between institutions and subjects.

The Government, however, was lukewarm, pointedly preferring evolution to revolution. Its stance reflected conservative concern in institutions. Ultimately, the interim findings of the Burgess report were torpedoed by a consensus among many universities and employers that whatever the shortcomings of the present system, to ditch recognisable classifications with a 200-year-old pedigree for untried and untested alternatives was just a step too far.

The Burgess group appears to have concluded that, faced with such unwillingness to contemplate any radical move, it was better to retreat and refrain from recommending a more fundamental overhaul. In their defence, they also pointed out that as any change had to be sanctioned by universities themselves and could not be imposed by fiat from above, it was imperative to get institutions on board. Hence their advocacy of a new Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear), a detailed record of student accomplishment that aims to provide context for the bald - and reprieved - final degree grade. Their hope must be that in time the obvious uses of the former will eclipse the increasing redundancy of the latter.

That may indeed turn out to be the case. But it is hard not to conclude in the meantime that the Burgess report is a missed opportunity, albeit an easy one to miss in very trying circumstances. The fact remains that however intransigent the opposition and however difficult they may find it to contemplate change, the current rate of grade inflation - approximately 2 per cent per annum - and the wide variation in subject and institutional classifications make the system unsustainable in the long term. Tellingly, students and employers are not waiting for the sector to come up with a solution. Students are registering for masters courses in large numbers in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their well-classified peers, while employers insist more than ever before on at least a 2:1 and a raft of other accomplishments (seemingly forgetting that the single-minded pursuit of the former tends to lead to the neglect of the latter and totally overlooking the potential of those with lesser degrees). The problem will not go away because universities cannot agree on a replacement.

All things considered, it would have been better for the Burgess group to stick to their interim report and stick their necks out.

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