Degree system for scrapheap

July 12, 1996

The classified honours degree system should be scrapped, academics and higher education managers have concluded. It is out of step with a mass higher education sector and the need for more explicit ways of recording student achievement, many believe.

Instead they want a scheme which recognises that the third-class degree is no longer regarded as denoting a satisfactory level of performance. One idea is to make the present lower second class the new "threshold" standard. Any student not reaching that level would not receive an honours degree.

Another is to create a three-tier grading system, where the award of a degree with honours would indicate a satisfactory performance; merit would show significant achievement and the ability to progress to a taught masters; while excellent would mark outstanding and original performance, sufficient to progress to postgraduate research.

A third option would be to replace standard three-year honours degrees with four-year programmes, with "satisfactory" and "satisfactory-plus" classes, and allowing students to exit earlier with intermediate qualifications.

Significant support for such ideas has been revealed in a survey conducted by the Higher Education Quality Council which will form part of the council's submission to the Dearing inquiry. Contributions came from more than 400 academics and managers in three institutions and across four subject areas, along with others who expressed views at four national workshops.

A report on the findings, published this week, underlines growing concern over the ability of the honours classification system to record achievement in a way which is clear, accurate and useful for students and potential employers. There are also worries about "grade inflation", with recent research showing most students are now awarded an upper second or a first.

At the heart of the problem is a tension between the classified honours degree system, attempts by the academic community, led by HEQC, to define more clearly the concept of "graduateness", and a wish to achieve greater comparability in the standards of degrees.

The report notes that academic standards are judged in terms of a general notion of a "satisfactory" level of performance, located somewhere within the second-class honours category. This contrasts with the idea of a "threshold" standard, defined as the minimum needed to gain a degree.

Under the present system, standards judgements are most sharply honed at the upper level of the honours degree, rather than the threshold level. The report says in a mass higher education system "it is worth asking whether such expectations about standards will continue to hold".

In all universities visited by HEQC researchers and in all national workshops held "there were those who expressed the view that a threshold approach to standards would and should require the abandonement of the honours degree," the report says.

It adds that "a substantial number of those who participated in this study recognised a powerful tension between the development of threshold standards and the operation of the classified honours degree, and considered that the classified honours degree system, at least as traditionally operated, may have outlived its usefulness both to the academic community and to other stakeholders".

Academic Standards in the Approval, Review and Classification of Degrees. Available from the Distribution Department, UCAS, Fulton House, Jessop Avenue, Cheltenham, price Pounds 6.50.

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