Are British universities finally ready to introduce an alternative to traditional degree classifications?
After more than a decade of informal talks, consultations, steering groups and pilot studies, it seems that they may have reached the elusive goal of implementing a more precise indicator of degree grades.
According to a report by the Grade Point Average Advisory Group for the Higher Education Academy published on 28 May, more than 50 higher education institutions have expressed an interest in trialling numerical scores alongside the existing degree classifications.
The report follows a pilot scheme at 21 higher education institutions in which they modelled the introduction of a GPA system by using the new method on academic performance data from previous students.
That led the group to recommend the introduction of a 15-point GPA system alongside traditional degree grades for a five-year trial, followed by a national review of the project.
The group concludes that the new system, in which students would gain a numerical mark up to 4.25, equivalent to F– to A+, would give students a more precise and internationally recognisable measure of their academic achievement.
“There has been some momentum gathering [at institutions] to say we need to move towards a GPA system,” said Sir Bob Burgess, formerly vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester, who chaired the advisory group.
While it is not yet known how many institutions will commit to running the new scoring system, Sir Bob said that a majority of all UK institutions “will have taken up GPA” by the end of the five-year trial.
Pressure from students will play a significant role in institutional take-up, added Sir Bob, whose Universities UK scoping group on measuring student achievement championed GPA as far back as 2004.
He cited the example of the Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear) – a record of a student’s module-level marks and extracurricular activities now offered by 87 higher education institutions – as an example of how student demand for initiatives can make a difference.
“If the NUS [National Union of Students] gets behind this project and champions it as it did the Hear, then it will progress very strongly,” he said.
Rewriting the rules
However, despite apparent enthusiasm for GPA, the new report, Grade Point Average: Report of the GPA Pilot Project 2013-14, raises several difficulties that could stymie the march of the new grade system.
According to the report, there was a consensus among the 21 institutions involved in the pilot that they would need to change their regulations to adopt GPA. Some anticipated having to carry out a full review of regulations on issues relating to progression, the disregarding of some marks in certain circumstances, compensation and resit arrangements.
For instance, many universities disregard the worst module marks achieved by a student, as they believe that a one-off low mark or failure to submit should not drag down the overall score of an otherwise outstanding student.
This would need to change under a grade point average system, where all marks are usually included.
That revision – alongside required upgrades to student record systems and changes to academic moderation processes – could take years, even among universities that have been actively considering the introduction of GPA.
Other issues include those around how grade distributions in different subjects vary, with GPA potentially favouring science subjects, in which marks of 80 and above are more common than in arts and humanities disciplines.
The report also highlights a division in views on how the new system should be introduced, with institutions disagreeing on how final averages are calculated.
Unlike in the US, where institutions use a “straight average” of all marks, 11 of the 21 institutions in the UK pilot said that they would exclude first-year marks in the GPA calculation to preserve a “transition year”, which would be particularly helpful for widening participation students.
In contrast, four institutions said that they would include first-year marks as doing so would improve international comparability and motivate students to study harder at the start of their degree. The remainder of institutions did not comment on that issue.
There was also a split in how marks should be weighted, with two-thirds (14 in total) of pilot institutions saying that they would give more weight to final-year studies, so that they did not penalise students for early weaker marks.
Having a variety of approaches to GPA within the sector – some of them more generous than others – is likely to raise concerns about the international comparability of the scores, which is one of the project’s stated aims.
But the GPA system will still offer “much greater transparency” than the existing honours degree system, which itself differs significantly between universities, insists advisory board member Graham Curtis, of the HEA’s student assessment and classification working group.
“Each university will publish a clear algorithm on how it calculates its GPA,” said Professor Curtis. “At the moment it is hard to find out how each university works out its degree scores.”
The extra “granularity” of a GPA system is also a significant advantage as it would allow employers greater scope to distinguish between graduates, of whom 51 per cent left university last year with a 2:1, said Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. “Seventy-five per cent of employers don’t care what people studied, but they do care about how intelligent they are and how well they did at university,” he said.
“When you have a degree scale with so few points, it is difficult to make decisions on this,” he added.
But Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said that institutions were unlikely to use most points on the proposed 15-point scale.
“Academics in the US have said that if you give anything below a B or B−, then you are likely to cause a riot,” said Professor Smithers. “People will use only the top few points of the scale, otherwise there will be some serious student unrest.”
While he supports the dual-running proposal, which was “relatively harmless”, Professor Smithers did not expect much of a clamour from students for GPA. Instead, he suggested, additions to the current classification system, such as the introduction of a “starred first”, would be more popular.
“The current classifications are a familiar currency and understood by most people,” Professor Smithers said. “Gaining a 4.25 is not nearly as exciting as getting a first-class degree.”