Ditching honours will boost sector's kudos

Conference to hear that focus on 2:1 or higher leads to grade inflation, Rebecca Attwood writes

July 3, 2008

Abandoning the honours classification system would boost the reputation of British higher education, it was claimed this week.

A fixation on students obtaining at least a 2:1 classification is putting pressure on academics to inflate grades and is eroding public confidence in the system, Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), was due to argue at a conference as Times Higher Education went to press.

Speaking ahead of the Higher Education Academy's annual conference, he said: "There is too much emphasis on degree classification, and we are at risk of just valuing the higher education experience on the basis of whether the student receives a 2:1 or not.

"Research has shown that a significant proportion of students 'switch off' from preparing for life after university and simply concentrate on getting that 'all-important' 2:1 - which suggests they've come to the conclusion a 2:2 is equivalent to failing the course."

He said employers had contributed to this by failing many job applicants with a 2:2 at the first hurdle. Last year, about 64 per cent of AGR members said they used the 2:1 as a screening tool. This year, this has dropped to about 55 per cent.

"It is a move in the right direction. It does suggest that some employers are recognising that they might be missing out on some very suitable candidates," said Mr Gilleard, who has welcomed plans to introduce the more detailed higher education achievement report.

"(As it stands) the classification is a very crude measure. What insight does it give, for example, as to the distance that a student may have travelled during their higher education experience?"

He cited the Burgess review assessment group's assertion that the classification system was "not fit for purpose" and the concerns of Peter Williams, head of the Quality Assurance Agency, who has called it "arbitrary and unreliable".

Peter Goodhew, director of the UK Centre for Materials Education and a board member of the HEA, will argue against the motion "This house believes the reputation of British higher education would improve if we abandoned the honours classification system".

He said the existing system was simple to understand and provided clear goals for students to aspire to. "A first is something students can get excited about receiving," he said. "Nobody ever leapt in the air with joy shouting, 'I got 63 per cent in applied cybernetics!'?"

The system also showed that the abilities, attitudes and aptitudes of a graduate were not primarily in their discipline, but in their approach as a graduate, he claimed.

"One of the criticisms of the current system is that it is very, very short shorthand: we try to encapsulate someone's knowledge and abilities in one line ... what I would assert is that, if we were to replace it, someone very quickly would find a way of shortening that down to a number. It could be as crude as the American grade-point average - so we would be back where we started."

But Professor Goodhew said that, while he was arguing to retain the current system, he was not in favour of the way it was being used. "I don't like the threat to standards, from the increase in numbers of firsts and upper seconds," he said.

"I think we are misusing the system. That doesn't mean our system is broken - it means we need to get back to using it to differentiate between different graduates and their skills and aptitudes."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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