Quality watchdogs have called for a review of the honours degree classification system following new concerns over "grade inflation". A report which shows big rises in the proportion of first-class and upper-second-class degrees awarded over the past 20 years strengthens the case for scrapping the system, they say.
Research findings in the report say more about how changes in the sector have left classification "outdated" and "arbitrary" than about falling standards, they say.
Keith Chapman, who carried out the research for the Higher Education Quality Council, said artificial degree classes were out of step with modularisation, the shift from final exams to coursework assessment and more openness in the reporting of students' marks and progress.
"Most students are now told just about every mark they have got. But as far as the outside world is concerned this information is buried in a crude classification system. In many cases we are talking about hairline decisions which produce very public differences in the result. It is not sensible to wrestle with those kinds of decisions when we are already providing students with a profile of their performance," he said.
Professor Chapman, head of geography at Aberdeen University, thinks the time is ripe for a more sophisticated grading system, including student profiling.
"There is a huge difference between someone at the bottom of the upper second class, and someone who has just missed out on a first. But as far as the outside world is concerned, they are the same."
Professor Chapman's study, the results of which are due to be published later in the summer, focusses on results in eight subjects for 300,000 students mainly in old universities between 1973 and 1993. It shows that overall the proportion of students receiving first degrees rose from 11 to 14 per cent, and those gaining an upper second from 31 to 44 per cent.
Robin Middlehurst, the HEQC's director of quality enhancement, said the study raised many important questions, including the future of the classification system.