Study reveals disparity in how universities calculate degree classes. Phil Baty reports
Students at some universities can obtain first-class degrees with average marks of little more than 50 per cent, research shows.
The study, which exposes the "shocking" differences in the way universities calculate degree classifications, found that it is easiest to get a first from Sunderland University, where students could achieve the award with a minimum average mark of just 50.8 per cent across their full course.
Students at the prestigious London School of Economics, listed as the 11th best university in the world in this week's Times Higher international league table, can get a first with an average mark of 52.5 per cent, according to a paper from London Metropolitan University.
The differences are such that marks that would earn an LSE student a first would be worth an upper second at the LSE's Russell Group rival Nottingham.
John Curran, an economist at London Met and the paper's lead author, admitted that some universities were likely to "go ballistic" over his calculations since he based them on the lowest possible hypothetical set of results needed to gain a first, which would be unlikely in practice.
But he said: "What we have found is shocking. The figures show just how much easier it is to get a first at some universities than others.
The system is unfair and it is very worrying. We need a debate."
Dr Curran's paper examines the published criteria for arriving at final degree classifications at 58 universities.
While a mark of 70 per cent or more is the standard requirement for a first-class grade in any given module of a degree, the overall performance across a degree needed to secure a first varies dramatically depending on the way the different elements of the course are added up.
The paper says that LSE students can achieve a first with an average mark of just 52.5 per cent. The school calculates classifications based on aggregating nine marks - all eight marks from second and third-year papers, and a ninth arrived at by finding an average mark from the best three first-year papers.
To gain a first, a student would need five first-class marks of at least 70 per cent from the nine counted, and would have to have passed at least 11 of the 12 courses over three years. So a results profile of five grades at 70 per cent and seven at the bare minimum pass rate of 40 per cent - 52.5 overall - could earn a first.
A spokeswoman for LSE said it was hypothetically possible that a first could be awarded for an average of 52.5 per cent - but "extremely unlikely".
"To the best of our knowledge, no cases anywhere near as extreme... have gone before a departmental examination sub-board or the school-wide examination board," she said.
She added that as LSE bases its final classification on nine papers, rather than the 12 that students sit, a fairer theoretical minimum average would be 56.67 per cent - based on five papers at 70 per cent and just four at the minimum 40 per cent.
The paper reports that Sunderland University is the most generous of all in awarding firsts to lower achievers.
It argues that as Sunderland counts only final-year marks towards the final classification, students could still scrape a first with an overall performance of just 50.8 per cent over two years and 12 units.
A Sunderland student could get a first with three modules at 70 per cent, two at 60 per cent and a further seven at the bare minimum passing grade of 40 per cent.
A spokesman for the university said it was true that such a set of results would indeed merit a first under its rules, but "what is being suggested has certainly never happened... and is simply not going to happen".
He defended the university's decision to count final-year results only towards the degree class. "We base our classification on the highest standard of learning outcomes - that is, without doubt, level three."
In contrast, the paper says that the minimum average mark needed for a first at the University of North London, now London Met, is 68 per cent.
Students are required to pass at least eight of 16 modules with a mark of at least 70 per cent.
The only place where it is more difficult to obtain a first is the University of East Anglia, the paper says, where students would need an average of 68.75 per cent.
HOW IT WORKS
* The London School of Economics and Nottingham University are both top UK universities yet the research shows that the marks required for a first at the LSE are significantly lower than at Nottingham
* According to the research, an LSE student with five papers at the first-class threshold of 70 per cent and four papers at 60 per cent - an average of 65.5 per cent - would get a first
* At Nottingham, the same set of results would not meet its requirement that a student must achieve an average mark of 70 per cent across all their second and third-year papers (with a higher weighting given to the final year) to gain a first.