Traditional degree classifications would be replaced with a three-point scale awarding the majority of students a basic pass or a fail and bestowing a distinction on a handful under proposals put out for consultation this week.
The scale of judgments would be backed by a detailed "academic transcript" recording students' achievements on all elements of their degree courses, which would allow employers to gain an in-depth understanding of the specific qualities of job applicants.
It is envisaged that only "a very small number of excellent candidates" would be awarded a distinction - likely to be half the 10 per cent of students who currently obtain firsts - so employers would be forced to look beyond the vast majority of "pass" grades to distinguish between candidates.
The proposals were published this week by the Measuring and Recording Student Achievement Steering Group, led by Robert Burgess, vice-chancellor of Leicester University. They would revolutionise a system that has been in place for hundreds of years.
Professor Burgess's review was initiated by the Government's January 2003 White Paper, which highlighted the rise in the proportion of first and upper-second class degrees as a matter of concern. More than half of students obtain the top two degree classifications.
The report says: "There is a need to consider enhancing the information made available to students, employers and other stakeholders about achievement and, as a consequence, making changes to the degree-classification system."
The report recommends a transcript-led approach, based on the records already widely in use across the sector, and the European Diploma Supplement being introduced across the Continent.
The final details of the transcript will be developed if the consultation exercise agrees a way forward, but it is likely that it will include individual marks for all aspects of a student's course along with details of performance in group work, coursework and unseen examinations at all levels of study.
Professor Burgess told The Times Higher: "The transcript will be very important. It will include a lot of detailed information about skills and attributes that a student possesses, such as problem-solving and independent research, that is currently lost in the system.
"It seemed to us that people were asking for more information, and our proposals meet that requirement while placing no additional burden on examiners." There are no plans for uniform assessment or grading methods.
The report, which included input from the Association of Graduate Recruiters, acknowledges that employers faced with a mass of applicants with pass degrees "will not wish to wade through vast quantities of detailed information". So it would be up to students to "interpret" their transcript information and tailor it.
It is unclear whether students would be able to calculate an overall percentage for their degree or produce a grade-point average.
The consultation ends on September 18, and detailed work on the system will be finalised by February 2006, with plans for a final scheme to be place by June 2006.
Leader, page 14