Own goal in grading of degrees 1

May 14, 2004

The reform of the system for awarding university degrees in the UK will be meaningful only if it includes a serious look at the issue of bare-minimum requirements ("Degree grades 'are too crude'", May 7).

As it stands, some British students can fail major parts of their studies outright and still be awarded a degree. The number of modules one can fail is as high as one-quarter.

For British universities, failure is bureaucratically inconvenient, and boards of examiners routinely collude to make failing students look just like passing students. Not only does the Quality Assurance Agency not expose these dubious practices, it insists on them. Tutors who argue for the upholding of standards are dismissed as difficult and vain.

The advantage of the grade-point average system used in North America is that it reduces the amount of discretion that a board of examiners can use in fudging a student's results.

GPAs are much more transparent and indicate a student's performance over a set number of modules. Under a GPA system, a student cannot be awarded a degree if they have failed 1 per cent of their modules, let alone 25 per cent, which is the case in some UK universities.

The imperative to uphold standards will always come into conflict with the imperative to keep the bureaucracy flowing. Our system of degree classifications is leading to the discrediting of UK higher education internationally.

Adrian Quinn
Lecturer in communications
Liverpool University 

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