Files replace degree classes

March 9, 2001

Progress files will begin to replace traditional degree classifications from the coming academic year despite widespread concerns about resources, bureaucracy, demand and privacy.

Guidance published by Universities UK and the Quality Assurance Agency this week says that detailed transcripts of students' academic and extra-curricular activities should be introduced from 2001-02 and that their universal and uniform use will be "expected" from 2002-03. The QAA will monitor the introduction of the system.

The files were recommended by the Dearing inquiry as a long-term replacement for the degree classification system, which, the committee heard, had "outlived its usefulness".

This week's guidance says the files are "an important element of the policy framework, which is intended to help make the outcomes or results of learning in higher education more explicit".

Students will be clearer about what is expected of them and what they can expect, the QAA paper says, and the files will also help employers select recruits.

A common format has been developed. The files will include details of work experience and other extra-curricular activity, and will record the achievements of students who drop out before completing their degrees and those whose study is interrupted.

The QAA acknowledges that there are reservations about the plans. Some academics, the paper says, are cynical about the purpose of the files and believe they are another mechanism for QAA control. Others view the files "as being merely ways in which the QAA can check on the delivery of programme specifications", the detailed descriptions of intended course outcomes that the QAA demands.

The paper says that this view, and numerous other worries, are shared by careers services, whose staff are concerned that the files "represent the extension of a bureaucratic system of student records: an attempt to reduce human beings to columns of data".

Concerns were also expressed about "burdensome piles of paper", the expectation of extensive additional work without proper resources, the verification of "student-claimed skills", data protection and student privacy.

•When historian David Starkey appeared on the BBC's Question Time , he said that when he was chairman of the board of examiners for history at the University of London in the early 1990s, he was pressured to award more first-class degrees.

"We deliberately lowered standards," he said. "The pressure was overwhelming. We were rewarded (by the Tory government) for more first-class degrees."

Dr Starkey, now a visiting fellow at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, told The THES that much of the blame lay with the increasing prevalence of league tables.

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