Degree grades 'are too crude'

May 7, 2004

The traditional degree classification of firsts, seconds and thirds should be scrapped, a government-backed task group will recommend in the summer.

The Times Higher has learnt that the "scoping group" charged by ministers to review the system for measuring students' achievement has concluded that the system of awarding firsts, 2:1s, 2:2s and third-class degrees is too crude to be meaningful.

The paper, expected by June, comes amid concerns about the growing numbers of students who gain firsts and upper seconds each year. Last year, 55 per cent of all first-degree graduates received either a first or a 2:1 compared with just 25 per cent ten years ago.

The group, headed by Bob Burgess, vice-chancellor of Leicester University, is unlikely to propose a replacement for the classifications. But it will call for further work to establish a new system that will more finely and accurately measure a student's achievement.

One idea that has been considered but that is unlikely to see the light of day is to scrap the final overall grade and either award a degree or not.

Potential employers would be offered a detailed transcript of a students' achievements.

Ministers are understood to be keen to see an overall grade with a transcript as a simple tool for prospective employers.

In its January 2003 white paper, the government said: "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."

The scoping group, set up last November, was divided into three subgroups, with one looking specifically at the classifications system.

One group said: "First we had to find out if there was a problem with the current system and we have agreed that there is a problem. But more work will be needed to find the solution."

It seems that the establishment of a detailed transcript of achievement is inevitable. Such a transcript - a student progress file - was recommended by the 1997 Dearing report into higher education, and recent research for the Department for Education and Skills found that most universities were already providing them in parallel with the degree classification system.

Britain is also signed up to a European Commission project to establish a European Diploma Supplement. As a potential model for the UK, the supplement provides a description of the nature, level, context, content and status of students' studies.

It is understood that the scoping group's three sub-groups will meet this month and a report will be finalised for publication next month at the earliest.

Universities UK, speaking on behalf of the group, said: "The group will of course be considering degree classification as this was in the white paper and there are widely known concerns about it."

· Admissions tutors could be allowed to see the marks achieved by applicants in the six modules that make up each A level under plans being considered by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Ucas has set up a committee to examine access to marks because tutors find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between applicants, many of whom now get top grades.

But the proportion of candidates awarded As in every A-level module is far lower than those achieving the top grade overall, offering the prospect of easier differentiation. Although students may not score an A for each of the six modules in an A grade, the results are put onto a uniform mark scale and may be sufficient for the candidate to be awarded an overall A for the subject.

· The Quality Assurance Agency will host a Scottish national seminar to look at the honours degree classification system next week.

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