Dumbing down disproved

June 26, 1998

Top honours degree have not been "dumbed down", evidence this week shows.

The Higher Education Statistics agency has found that the proportion of first class and upper second class degrees awarded hardly changed for the three years from 1994-95 to 1996-97.

Last year 7.1 per cent of graduates were given firsts, compared with 6.9 per cent the year before and 7 per cent in 1994-95. The proportion of upper seconds awarded rose very slightly to 41.1 per cent from 40.9 per cent in 1995-96 and 40.4 per cent in 1994-95.

Quality watchdogs, who are developing a new system for checking higher education standards, have been keeping an eye on "grade inflation" since a study two years ago revealed a significant rise in the proportion of firsts and upper seconds in old universities over 20 years to 1993.

Keith Chapman, the geography head at Aberdeen University who carried out the study for the Higher Education Quality Council, said this week that the latest figures suggested the system had stabilised after a period of rapid growth and change.

"It shows that although there may have been concerns about falling standards there were other technical reasons, such as modularisation and increasing use of continuous assessment, for the rise in previous years in the proportion of top grades," he said.

The increase and then levelling off in the number of women in higher education was another contributing factor, along with the "dampening down" effect of fewer top awards given by new universities.

Professor Chapman said the time was ripe for the sector to consider scrapping the "tremendously unfair" honours degree classification system. Institutions were moving towards providing students with transcripts giving a full breakdown of their marks and a description of what they have achieved on their course, he said.

The changes were bound to lead to an increase in the number of disputes over marks from students on the borderline between a lower or upper second, and an upper second or a first, he warned.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said the HESA figures showed there was every reason for the Quality Assurance Agency, stakeholders, employers and the public to have confidence in higher education standards.

A spokesman said it was likely that the honours classification system would eventually be replaced by transcripts, which would work well with QAA proposals for institutions to spell out what students should know and be able to do after completing a course.

But the Confederation of British Industry said employers would be "worried and confused" if degree classifications were abandoned too quickly.

The HESA figures show that men are still ahead of women in gaining first-class degrees, with 7,561 men awarded a first in 1996/97 compared with 7,087 women. But significantly more women than men gained an upper second (51,749 women compared with 38,293 men), and men were much more likely than women to be award a third class or unclassified degree.

Peter Williams, director of institutional review for the Quality Assurance Agency, pointed out that universities, as autonomous institutions, were free to classify degrees as they saw fit. But he added: "We are not convinced that the current arrangements provide a meaningful, reliable or helpful indication of attainment."

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