Degrees in a class of their own

July 5, 1996

Mass higher education calls for a rethink of the honours classifications, argues Peter Wright

A decade or so ago critics of British education sometimes described the system as a "pyramid of failure". By this they meant that at each critical point of educational progression the experience of the majority of the age group was to fail to achieve the main qualification available. For example, most 16-year-olds did not gain five GCEs at O level and a much higher proportion failed at the age of 18 to achieve two or more A levels.

Much has changed in schools and further education colleges, not least as a result of the introduction of GCSEs and GNVQs. A deliberate attempt has been made to develop qualifications and related forms of assessment that reward candidates for what they know and can achieve.

Under this approach to qualifications the award of a threshold pass is taken to signify a positive level of achievement to which may be added the recognition of higher levels of achievement by means of the use of terms such as "with merit", or by the award of a higher grade.

This stands in contrast to the "traditional" system in which excellence is taken to be the ideal with the result that the performance of most candidates is characterised negatively by the extent to which they fail to achieve it.

The two approaches may look superficially similar: both, for example, may lead to the award of graded qualifications. But at heart, they are profoundly different both culturally and psychologically.

The new approach chimes with the needs of a mass, open system of education in which all have the chance to succeed and are valued for what they achieve. The "traditional" suits an elite system that sifts out a few from the many. The two approaches are also likely to have implications for the curriculum and modes of learning. The first is likely to lead to programmes of study pitched towards the needs of most students; the latter to the needs of the outstanding student.

The first type of approach is not so common in higher education. Those that exist are mainly concentrated in certain professional areas, more generally in Scotland and on some modular programmes in which levels of award are framed in positive terms. In higher education a student's performance is most often classified by the extent to which it is - or more likely, fails to be - "excellent". Where the classified honours degree is the usual award, the ideal result is a first-class honours degree, which is given to between 3 per cent and 25 per cent of students (a figure that varies greatly from subject to subject and institution to institution).

The performance of all other students is defined by the margin by which they "failed" to gain a first.

Evidence to support this view can be drawn from the findings of the Higher Education Quality Council's graduate standards programme. In its interim report, published in December 1995, it stated that for most academics the concept of threshold standards was, "unfamiliar and/or problematic because it [had] little to do with their daily practice". This, it explained was because staff reported that when judging a student's performance they were doing so in relation to a notion of "satisfactoriness" pitched at a level falling "somewhere in the second-class honours category".

Although the report did not make the point explicitly, academic staff, not surprisingly, frequently took the view that those to whom they awarded third-class honours degrees or passes had demonstrated unsatisfactory performance but, for a variety of reasons, not so seriously as to have failed.

Such an understanding of the honours classification is borne out by the work of institutions that have tried to render explicit the criteria involved in the classification of their degrees. Typically, their descriptions of performance at the first and upper second-class honours level are couched positively.

In contrast, when they define the third-class honours or pass level they tend to employ negative qualifiers such as "with difficulty", or "with weakness in some papers, compensated with strength elsewhere".

This situation seems odd: it appears that up to 5 to 8 per cent of the degrees (the estimated number of passes and thirds) awarded by higher education institutions are to candidates whose performance is judged unsatisfactory by those teaching and assessing them. The reason for this is probably that most programmes and awards in higher education are still couched in terms of academic progression.

The persistence and even, growing dominance of the English classified honours degree during the expansion into a mass system is striking. Even in 1963 when the number of students was around 120,000 (as opposed to over 1,600,000 today) the Robbins report expressed concern as to whether too many students might be studying for honours (although at that time the proportion was almost certainly rather lower than today).

The English classified honours degree also looks unusual from an international perspective. Although some countries, such as Australia, also award honours degrees, they usually do so to reward additional study at a higher level than that of an ordinary degree - as in Scotland - and not - as generally in the United Kingdom - to recognise superior performance.

In much of continental Europe and the United States, qualifications generally adopt what I call the new approach. In these countries it is normal for students to be made awards which signify the demonstration of a minimum level of achievement, supplemented, as appropriate, by additional marks of attainment such as cum laude.

Why, then, has the classified honours degree maintained - and even consolidated - its dominance in this country? The answer lies, I suspect, in the difficulty in coming to terms with mass higher education. Although almost one third of the age group now passes through higher education, the system continues to resemble an expanded (some would say crowded) elite rather than a mass system.

For example, the typical programme of study continues to be fairly specialised despite the fact that it depends on specialised preparation between the ages of 16 and 19, which many believe is now being eroded; it is still expected that most students will complete their courses successfully despite increasingly open access; and the growth of intermediate qualifications has been surprisingly slow and halting.

The coming into being of a mass system brings into play forces that are quite different from those in elite higher education. In particular, a mass system will attract a far more heterogenous clientele of students and other interested parties than will an elite. These new groups are unlikely to enter higher education after already having been socialised into its values (as were the grammar school pupils of the 1950s); indeed, they will probably challenge many existing aspects of the system and place quite new demands on it.

The growth of a mass, internally diverse system of higher education creates a need for the definition of thresholds. Those entering higher education (increasingly at considerable expense to themselves) will want to know what minimum attributes are signified by the possession of a degree, as will those who fund it.

Peter Wright is an assistant director at the Higher Education Quality Council.

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