Beyond classification

The fuss over external examining and standards misses the point - degrees really are no longer what they were, says Kevin Sharpe

July 24, 2008

Letters lamenting the ever-increasing proportion of first-class degrees and upper seconds and declining standards have become an annual ritual in the academic calendar.

But this year we have seen an unprecedented outpouring of anxiety and protest that has spilled over from scholarly debate to broad public discussion. Both under their names and anonymously, scholars from elite universities as well as those less highly placed have gone to the national press admitting that they and their colleagues have been pressured by their institutions to award higher proportions of top-class degrees so as to secure their universities a higher ranking in league tables.

Along with this, several external examiners - the supposed custodians of standards - have gone public with stories of their recommendations and concerns being ignored, of their being used merely to give spurious external validation to inflated grades ("External examiners under pressure to uphold marks and avoid criticism", Times Higher Education, 26 June).

So much publicity and concern has been generated that a parliamentary select committee has resolved to investigate degree classification and standards, aware that in higher education the half-suspicion of a tainted brand might lead to the collapse of the business (years ago I heard a vice-chancellor say that he could not risk repeating Gerald Ratner's costly blunder by admitting that university degrees were crap).

So has the examining system become corrupted, and is the degree classification system worthless? Would it, as has been widely suggested, be better to replace the first, upper second, lower second (thirds have gone!) system with a transcript of marks, such as is common in the US? I think that the answer to the first is no and that the second looks for a solution to the wrong problem.

It is not that the examining and classification system has failed. The problem is worse: it is that our degrees have profoundly changed and are no longer in any sense a serious test of knowledge, intelligence or critical ability.

If one sets a bar very low and most succeed effortlessly in clearing it, one cannot blame the judges for awarding all the successful jumpers a high mark. For some years, we have been steadily lowering the bar.

Until not many years ago, a degree required that a student attain an overall grasp of a subject and of the skills of a discipline, required the capacity to relate subjects (in history, for example, the development of the state in England and France) and to be able to discuss, in English say, the rise of the novel. The university course was a progress through three years in attaining knowledge, developing understanding and acquiring critical evaluative skills that could be transferred to other fields of inquiry - and indeed to work and life. Now instead what we ask is that students simply stay the distance and perform competently a number of discrete tasks - without any need to relate or connect them.

Part of the problem has been the shift to a modular degree and the reduction (in some universities, removal) of examinations. The demise of final exams and shift to a modular system have changed not just how we assess but what we require for a degree. For without traditional examinations, and with the modular system, students rightly see little need to think outside the particular exercise or to relate this problem or subject to one they tackled last semester. They perform an isolated task and are rewarded for performing it. Add these satisfactorily performed tasks together and - hey, presto - everyone half-able gets an upper second and the reasonably good a first.

Many undergraduates are very intelligent, and the best reach very high standards of intellectual attainment. But that is not because our system any longer requires or even encourages it. Indeed, what may be our greatest failing is that we do not push the able to fulfil their greatest potential because we do not sufficiently differentially reward it in a system that accords less to highly developed critical thinking, originality and flair. Moreover, even the less talented are deprived of the experience of improving and developing, of beginning to see, as they revised - that is looked and thought again - how different areas of a subject threw light on each other as well as contributed to a whole discipline and understanding.

If the response to the laments about classifications leads only to a shift to transcripts, it will not settle public concern about standards nor address the larger - and much more serious - problem of our degrees, which, under the same name, no longer constitute anything like the same thing and may even be no longer fit for purpose.

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