Degree award faces overhaul

October 10, 2003

Traditional degree classifications could soon be scrapped following new research that shows that most universities are already giving graduates aggregate final marks as part of new transcripts of achievement.

Research commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills published this week reveals that "most" universities have already embraced a 1997 recommendation by Lord Dearing to introduce student progress files for all graduates, which include awarding an "aggregate summative mark" for final results.

The researchers said the progress files, issued in parallel with degree classifications, could easily replace the traditional system of awarding first, upper-second, lower-second and third-class honours degrees, as the government has urged.

The findings, from the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information at the Open University, will be put to a new government-backed "scoping group" that will meet this month to "consider possible alternative methods for presenting the overall achievements of students".

The group will report next year amid strong government concerns that the growing proportion of students obtaining first-class and upper second-class degrees - a record 55 per cent last year - have rendered the traditional system too crude to be meaningful.

"The time is more than ripe for a fundamental look at the way students'

achievement is described and recorded," said Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency and a member of the Universities UK scoping group.

"The current degree classification system gives little useful information about achievement and is confusing to those outside the UK higher education world. It may once have served a valuable purpose, but it is probably now doing more harm than good," he said, stressing that he was speaking in a personal capacity.

The CHERI research, published jointly by the UUK, the QAA, the Standing Conference of Principals and the Learning and Teaching Support Network, surveyed all higher education institutions and found that most "have already introduced transcripts" that give a detailed breakdown of a students' achievements, giving marks for all units of assessments and reporting a total aggregate mark for the course, usually as a percentage mark. Where transcripts had not been introduced, institutions reported that they would be in place by summer 2003.

The report follows government criticism of the existing system in the white paper on higher education issued in January.

"We want to ensure that whatever system universities use is transparent and adequately conveys the difference between the achievements of individual students, so that it has credibility with students and employers," it said.

The THES reported last month that the third-class degree was dying out - awarded to 3 per cent of students at Cambridge University last year compared with 22 per cent in the 1960s - while a growing number of students were achieving the top grades, making it hard for employers to distinguish between candidates.

Institutions surveyed by the CHERI reported almost no disadvantages in introducing the transcripts. "They provide a clear, portable and comparable statement of student achievement," the report said, as well as making "the process of assessment clearer to students, staff and employers".

Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, said:

"We make extensive use of transcripts and progress files. I would not regret the passing of the old classification system except that I think there is still value (and currency) in keeping the first-class award."

Norman Jackson, a member of the UUK, QAA and Scop progress file implementation group, said: "All along there has been a need to provide something that would provide better information for students and employers in parallel with the degree classification."

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