Liverpool slated as number of firsts soars

September 22, 2006

Liverpool University has been accused of lowering its academic standards after controversial reforms introduced during this year's pay dispute led to an explosion in the number of top honours degrees awarded.

Across the university, 72 per cent of students received a first or an upper second, compared with 63 per cent last year.

It is understood that the overall figures mask greater increases in some subjects and in the proportion of firsts awarded.

An internal analysis of degree results by history staff, seen by The Times Higher , shows that 23 out of the 37 history students who obtained firsts this year would not have gained the top award before the reforms.

The proportion receiving firsts rose from 7 per cent in 2005 to almost 18 per cent in 2006.

Students could technically achieve a first-class degree without a single first-class mark in any individual unit of their degree.

Alan Smithers, former professor of education at Liverpool who is now at Buckingham University, said: "This is evidence of lowering the bar and reducing the value of a first, which is hard on those who have done outstandingly well."

In 2005, 56 per cent of all students nationally obtained either a first or upper second, with 11 per cent gaining firsts.

The rises follow emergency reforms last spring designed to ensure that students could graduate despite the national exams and assessment boycott by the University and College Union. Although the action was called off on June 6, the reforms were left in place.

The key change was the removal of student "profiling" to determine degree classifications in borderline cases. Under the usual rules, students whose average marks are narrowly short of a higher classification could be up-graded only if they had sufficient individual marks of that higher standard. Under the reforms, borderline students were upgraded irrespective of their profile, meaning average marks of 67 per cent would automatically receive first-class honours.

One senior member of staff at Liverpool said: "It was warned at the time that the reforms would lead to a illegitimate increase in top degrees and would 'take an axe to the roots of what constitutes a university'. It is clear that those warnings were justified."

The university said it had insufficient time to provide a breakdown of results by subject. Vice-chancellor Drummond Bone, who is also president of Universities UK, said: "The university has every confidence in the procedures it followed in classifying degrees following the... industrial action this summer.

"Attempts by individuals with strong views about the strike to discredit the hard work of individual students must be resisted by all who care about education. We need to move on from the bad blood created by the strike."

Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "We said at the time that universities ran the risk of compromising their own, and Britain's, standing in the academic world with hastily cooked-up contingency plans."

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