GPA adopted more widely, but White Paper may dampen interest

HEA survey suggests that institutions are waiting on TEF details before deciding whether to adopt more granular method of degree classification

June 19, 2016
Hot air balloon on the ground
Struggling to lift off? The White Paper may dampen interest in grade point average degree classification, a conference heard

More UK universities are set to start operating the grade point average system of degree classification, but the higher education White Paper may have dealt a blow to hopes that it could be adopted widely, a conference has heard.

A survey conducted by the Higher Education Academy suggested that, while about 10 more institutions plan to begin running GPA within the next year, awarding an average mark ranging from 0 to 4.25 instead of or alongside the traditional honours classification, the vast majority of providers are waiting for a clear signal from ministers before taking a decision.

But last month’s White Paper put significantly less emphasis on GPA than last November’s Green Paper, an event organised by the Westminster Higher Education Forum heard.

When the Green Paper was published, Jo Johnson, the universities minister, said the traditional honours model was “on its own, no longer capable of providing the recognition hard-working students deserve and the information employers require”. The Green Paper proposed that universities be required to tell teaching excellence framework panels whether they had adopted GPA, which is regarded as offering a more detailed and accurate picture of how students perform throughout their course.

This support prompted the HEA to survey 80 institutions at the start of 2016 about whether they intended to join the likes of Oxford Brookes University and Abertay University in running GPA alongside the honours system. One university that responded said that it was adopting it this year, nine said they planned to do so in 2016-17, and seven said that they did not intend to implement GPA.

The remaining respondents did not give a clear answer either way, with further questions revealing that they were awaiting the government’s detailed plans for the TEF.

But Geoff Stoakes, the HEA’s head of special projects, told the Westminster forum that the White Paper had been “rather disappointing” for advocates of GPA, since the only reference to GPA was as one of many pieces of evidence that an institution might choose to submit to a TEF panel.

“It remains to be seen whether the TEF is a sufficient stimulus to institutions which have other priorities to take on GPA,” he said. “Even if they do, it is highly unlikely [that] institutions would adopt the same scale and the same methodology.”

Last year, more than 50 higher education institutions expressed an interest in running GPA alongside their honours system, and the HEA has now launched a national implementation group for the scheme.

But Adam Wright, lead policy officer at the National Union of Students, told the event that the adoption of different ways of calculating GPA by different institutions – as is proposed currently – would blunt the effectiveness of the initiative.

“Without standardisation…of the algorithms behind the classification, GPA will undermine the confidence that employers have in the system,” Dr Wright said.

The event also heard concerns about the effectiveness of external examining, with Viscount Hanworth, emeritus professor of econometrics and computational statistics at the University of Leicester, claiming he had been “hugely pressurised” by institutions in which he had been an external examiner to give comments that could be “helpfully placed on the website in order to bolster the reputation of the university”. Other speakers questioned whether external examiners were sufficiently independent or had enough time to undertake their task effectively.

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