Degree classifications overhaul planned

November 5, 2004

Graduates' performance across every element of their degree courses would be revealed under proposals to replace the traditional degree classifications of first, second and third-class honours, writes Phil Baty.

As The Times Higher first reported in May and confirmed last month, a Government-backed task force has concluded that the 200-year-old system of degree classifications is no longer "fit for purpose" and should be "reviewed".

Although the report, which is published this week, does not recommend a replacement for classifications, its author Robert Burgess said that he would put firm plans for a new system on the table by December 2005.

He told The Times Higher that he expected the new system to draw on the whole range of information on student performance currently kept confidential by universities, and to build on the detailed transcripts of student achievement already in use in many universities.

"There is lots of information that examiners routinely have available to them that we do not currently place in the public domain," Professor Burgess, vice-chancellor of Leicester University, said.

He added: "By placing it on a transcript it would mean that there would not be a burden of additional work for examiners and at the same time it would make the fine-grain detail available to students and employers."

Professor Burgess said the sector would "need to think about" revealing a full breakdown of students' performance on all degree modules or units.

"It could be made public without much additional effort," he said.

Professor Burgess would not be drawn on whether the new system would provide each student with an overall summative grade or mark for their degree performance. This option is favoured by ministers - but Professor Burgess acknowledged that a simple overall percentage mark would be easy to generate if transcripts showed performance across all degree modules or units.

"This is where research needs to be done. We need to devise a system that is appropriate for the 21st century and that will stand the test of time," he said.

The report, Measuring and Recording Student Achievement , was commissioned after the Government's January 2003 White Paper on higher education.

There are concerns that classifications have become too crude to be meaningful in a mass university system, and that grade inflation was making it impossible to identify true high-flyers.

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

Professor Burgess said that he hoped that there would be sufficient "momentum" for a swift implementation of a new system after years of discussion and a high degree of consensus on the need for change.

"The moment is now right to move forward," Professor Burgess said.

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