Comparability of standards impossible and wrong, Hepi says

Report calls for degree-classification system to be phased out, writes Rebecca Attwood

June 3, 2010

Achieving the same standards in degrees awarded by different universities is impossible and it would be wrong to attempt it, a higher education think tank has claimed.

Universities have been working to respond to a select committee of MPs who accused the sector of "defensive complacency" over standards and criticised vice-chancellors for dodging the question of whether a 2:1 in history from Oxford Brookes University was "equivalent" to a 2:1 in the subject from the University of Oxford.

But this week, in a report for the Higher Education Policy Institute, Roger Brown, the former head of the Higher Education Quality Council, says the very question of whether the standards of degrees are comparable may be misguided.

"There are almost inevitably differences in the standard of outcomes of different universities and it is right that should be so," the report says. "It makes little sense to seek comparability of outcomes, and indeed it would actually be wrong to do so."

The paper, published on 3 June, says the very high level of attainment achieved by students attending Oxford or Cambridge, the much higher level of resources devoted to them and the intensity of study at the institutions means it would be "a surprise" if the outcomes of their students were no higher than those in less well-resourced universities where students had far lower entry grades.

Although it says that the UK "almost certainly" gives more systematic attention to academic standards than any other higher education system does, the paper lists the factors that have put pressure on comparability, including "insufficient professionalism" in the practice of assessment, the expansion of the sector and increasing competition.

"Whilst the desire for some degree of comparability has remained - and even in some respects increased as the system has expanded and become more diverse - the ability to achieve it has diminished," Professor Brown writes.

Instead of aiming for an "unrealistic" level of comparability, minimum standards must be maintained and the current system of degree classifications should be phased out, he says.

The most fundamental change would be to improve the quality of assessment, the report argues, which it says suffers from a string of problems including "lack of technical robustness".

It also claims that there is too much reliance on external examiners and says the Quality Assurance Agency and the Higher Education Academy should help to create sector-wide networks of staff who would compare the quality of student work and marks awarded.

Professor Brown's paper was welcomed by Peter Williams, the former head of the QAA, and by Phil Willis, the former Liberal Democrat MP who led the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee's inquiry into standards.

Both joined the call for the degree-classification system to be abolished.

Mr Williams said the report had "hit several nails bang on the head. Immutable and universal standards for all degrees everywhere have become a fetish. They haven't existed for at least 40 years. The continuing delusion must be exposed and the system reformed."

Mr Willis said it was "a little disappointing" that Professor Brown had dismissed the idea of reviving a Council for National Academic Awards model, but the idea of subject-based networks of staff went "somewhere towards a solution".

"The proliferation of undergraduate courses at an ever-increasing number of degree-awarding institutions poses a real challenge to the reputation of UK higher education - a challenge that currently is all too easily dismissed by the university elite," he added.

Chris Rust, head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development at Oxford Brookes, agreed that there should be new disciplinary networks of academics working to share standards.

But he said he was unconvinced that real comparability was not feasible or desirable.

"Employers currently want to see a 2:1 meaning something that is comparable across the sector and across disciplines," he said.

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