Degrees from different universities in Britain are not directly comparable, new research has confirmed.
Mantz Yorke, professor of higher education studies at Liverpool John Moores University, told the British Educational Research meeting in Exeter that his research into degree classifications raised important questions about the way results are finalised.
He said: "My findings suggest that the notion of the honours degree classification is considerably less robust than its supporters would prefer."
In analysing blocks of results from different universities, Professor Yorke discovered that the algorithms used to determine classifications varied considerably. For example, some universities alter the weighting of results from years two and three when calculating final-degree classifications, while others do not.
According to his analysis, changing the weightings from 50:50 to 25:75 raises the final classifications of 10 per cent of students. This might be because the general tendency is for students to perform better in their final year compared with year two, possibly because they are more experienced. There is also a tendency for coursework-type activity to attract higher marks.
Professor Yorke found that the practice adopted by some institutions of dropping the weakest marks from the final-degree classification might have an even more significant effect. Dropping the "worst" 30 credit points might change one classification in six, the majority being upwards.
"The analyses indicate that a student's honours degree classification may be affected by the way in which it is computed," Professor Yorke said. "The findings of this study underscore the need for greater transparency regarding the principles on which awards are constructed."
A team from Sheffield Hallam University reported on research into students'
understanding of plagiarism and the impact of cultural variations. Peter Ashworth, professor of educational research at SHU, said: "Non-western cultures found the idea that you cannot write what the expert in the field has said very odd indeed."
His interviews with 30 students revealed a broad range of views about what constitutes plagiarism, suggesting more work is needed to help students appreciate the difference between legitimate collaboration and cheating.
Much confusion arose about acceptable paraphrasing of the work of others, and about the meaning of plagiarising of ideas.
"Varying personal moralities were part of it, as were different meanings within each discipline. For example, when we spoke to students in fine art, they had no real notion of the idea of plagiarism at all. But a lot of the time students simply had not been part of any discussion about how to reference their work properly," Dr Ashworth said.