Grade system awarded 'fail'

September 29, 2006

QAA briefing paper warns that degree classifications are unfair on students and unfit for purpose, writes Phil Baty.

It's official: not only is it impossible to compare the performance of students at different universities, but there is often little point in trying to compare degree results from the same university.

This is the verdict of a Quality Assurance Agency briefing paper on the system for awarding student degree classifications. The paper will increase the momentum towards the abolition of the traditional system of awarding first, upper and lower seconds and third-class degrees, to be debated in a series of national conferences starting this week.

The paper highlights cases in which QAA inspectors found that variations in the way classifications were calculated put students at risk "of possible or actual unfair treatment".

It reported cases in which joint-honours students, straddling different faculty conventions, were "significantly less likely to achieve a first-class degree than those studying a single subject".

The QAA paper was prepared for the Burgess Group, which is consulting on plans to abolish traditional classifications on the grounds that the system is "no longer fit for purpose".

The group, chaired by Bob Burgess, vice-chancellor of Leicester University, has proposed a system in which students would receive one of three outcomes - a fail, a pass and, reserved for a small elite, a distinction.

Such broad results would be accompanied by a "detailed transcript"

recording student performance across all elements of a course. The plans met with a cool response from the Institute of Directors and the University and College Union, both of which warned that the overall verdicts would be too crude.

But the QAA paper lends weight to the accusation that degree classifications are neither clear nor fair.

Peter Williams, chief executive of the QAA, said: "Whatever proposals emerge in the coming months must be meaningful, easy to understand and have the confidence of the public. Anything that is obscure, confusing or has the look of a game of chance will not meet those criteria."

The QAA paper says that the class of honours degree awarded to each student does not simply mirror academic achievements: it "reflects also the marking practices inherent in the subject or subjects studied, and the rule or rules authorised by that institution for determining the classification".

This means that it cannot be assumed that students with the same classification in the same subjects from different institutions have achieved the same academic standards.

And the report asserts: "It cannot be assumed that students graduating with the same classified degree from a particular institution having studied different subjects, will have achieved similar academic standards."

The paper adds that you cannot compare students with the same classification in the same subject from the same university, if they graduated at different times.

From this week, the Burgess Group is hosting events for vice-chancellors and registrars across the UK on the future of degree classifications. This will inform the group's final recommendations, due in December. The consultation closes on November 3.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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