Call to scrap degree classes

October 15, 2004

Traditional degree classifications of firsts, seconds and thirds should be scrapped, a government-backed review group has concluded, writes Phil Baty.

The final draft of the report of the Burgess group on measuring student achievement, leaked to The Times Higher , concludes that the 200-year-old classification system "has outlived its usefulness and is no longer fit for purpose".

The report, Measuring and Recording Student Achievement , marked "in strictest confidence", is due to be published later this month, after it is rubber-stamped by the boards of the funding council and Universities UK.

Although the report shies away from suggesting any specific replacement system, it recommends: "There should be further investigation of alternative classificatory systems for representing achievement that better meet the needs of different audiences."

The report says the sector should explore systems, such as the US grade-point average, that allow for finer distinction between students' performance.

Other areas that ought to be explored are simple pass/fail systems and even the abandonment of overall performance measures in favour of detailed transcripts of an individual's achievement on each element of his or her degree course.

The group, led by Bob Burgess, vice-chancellor of Leicester University, was set up in response to government concern that broad classifications were far too crude to be meaningful.

There are also fears that too many students are gaining first and upper second-class honours degrees, and that employers are unable to distinguish between top candidates.

Last year, 55 per cent of all first-degree graduates received either a first or 2.1, compared with 25 per cent ten years ago.

The report also warns that the present system lacks transparency and disguises vari-ations in marking practices across disciplines and between institutions.

The report accepts that there is "no obvious single alternative to the current system", but it says: "The higher education sector needs to decide whether there is a continuing need for an indicator of the overall performance and, if so, whether this indicator can be more informative and more satisfactory."

It calls for "clear progress" on drawing up plans for an alternative system by December 2005.

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