Marked differences: time for new degree systems?

The fact that firsts are far more common in science than arts boosts case for reform of UK system

July 31, 2014

Source: Alamy

Noughts and crosses: marking in science and maths can follow an objective ‘right or wrong’ approach, while an essay-based subject needs a more nuanced grading system

According to scientist and novelist C. P. Snow’s famous 1959 Rede lecture “The two cultures and the scientific revolution”, there are two “polar” opposites when it comes to intellectual life: “Literary intellectuals at one pole – at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists”.

Set foot into any university and you can still see what he observed among students – those who study the arts, those who opt for the sciences and the “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between them.

This war has been raging for decades, and the debate over the value of each discipline is well-trodden territory. Yes, biology students begin their day earlier and clock more hours in the lab than those studying the works of Thomas Hardy, but it is generally accepted that measuring a degree in formal teaching hours is not a true test of its worth.

However, irrespective of their differences, the two fields are often then placed in direct comparison as graduates enter the world of employment. When sifting through CVs, generally the first thing employers look to is the applicant’s degree classification.

And Higher Education Statistics Agency figures from 2012-13 show that almost twice as many students who studied sciences at UK higher education institutions graduated with first-class honours as those in the arts and humanities. For example, 33 per cent of mathematics students achieved first-class honours, compared with only 17 per cent who studied English. Among chemistry and mechanical engineering students, approximately per cent attained firsts, but only 19 per cent of philosophy students and 16 per cent of history students did the same.

These statistics give rise to various inferences, with some foolish souls arguing that it shows that science students are cleverer. More usefully, it raises the question of whether the straightforward marking system within the sciences makes a higher grade more achievable than in subjective arts subjects.

In a scientific or mathematically based assessment, the marking can follow an objective “right or wrong” approach, while an essay-based subject such as English demands a much more nuanced grading system.

“In maths it is perfectly feasible to score 100 per cent by solving a problem perfectly and so high marks are more common,” says Sam Howison, chairman of the Mathematical Institute at the University of Oxford.

A levels show similar disparities

Judith Squires, pro vice-chancellor for education at the University of Bristol, says that at her institution, as at other UK universities, “we do find that there are more firsts awarded in the physical sciences than in arts and humanities”.

But she points out that the differences also occur at A level, noting that in 2013, 6.2 per cent of candidates in the UK obtained A* in English, whereas 16.8 per cent achieved A* in maths and 28 per cent A* in further maths. “It would seem that there are underlying reasons associated with the nature of the disciplines for this long-standing pattern,” Squires says.

Given that academics are wholly aware of the difference in degree classifications across subjects, is it something that ought to be fixed?

Nigel Seaton, principal and vice-chancellor of Abertay University, argues that “different forms of assessment and distinct academic cultures in particular subject areas” make it difficult for UK universities to achieve in practice the general aim of ensuring that “students’ work is marked in a consistent way across all subject areas”.

“While [differences among subjects] typically do not affect average marks, or who passes and who fails, it can sometimes make a big difference to the proportion of students getting a first-class degree in different subjects,” he says.

“This is one of the ways – there are several others – in which degree classification is a fundamentally unfair system, which, in the interests of our students, we should leave behind as soon as we can.”

Steps are being taken towards abandoning the current degree classification system, which many believe is unfit for purpose. A grade point average system (GPA) is currently on trial in several institutions, overseen by the Higher Education Academy. The GPA, which is used widely around the world – including North America and Asia – converts scores into a decimal value, allowing for finer distinction in marks and helping to standardise the grading of results across departments.

Selma Carson, senior lecturer in real estate at the University of Manchester, says that using such a system “could have a number of benefits, including distinguishing the really good pieces of work more easily”.

There is also the Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear), the product of a sector-wide review of the honours classification system in 2007. It is being offered to graduates at a growing number of institutions, with the intention of providing “a more detailed account of what a student has actually achieved during their studies, rather than just a one-off degree classification”, according to Universities UK.

Results aren’t everything: employers

But do employers actually need more information to distinguish between graduates from different disciplines? There is some evidence that companies consider the university attended, and the specific talents of the graduate, to be as important as the classification.

“We always look for candidates with good solid degrees from leading universities, and by that I mean a 2:1 or a first from one of around 15 to 20 universities,” says Jenny Marshall, director of PR agency Camargue.

“A first will get the candidate noticed and possibly through the first stage of selection. [But] beyond class of degree, the rest of the recruitment process is down to the candidate’s personality and ability in the interview process.”

The subject the applicant studied can also be important to employers.

Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, says its recent summer survey found that 30 per cent of graduate recruiters “looked for a specific degree subject as part of their selection criteria”.

He adds that those looking at candidates across subject areas are aware that the system “makes it difficult to differentiate between classifications…so those recruiting graduates often look for students who have achieved a minimum 2:1” while also looking at how they performed in previous exams, such as A levels. “On top of this, students must be able to demonstrate certain competencies that are important to a role,” he says.

Arts and humanities students themselves may not even necessarily be worried by the seemingly tougher task they face in getting a first.

Teddy Simpson, a history undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, said “for arts students, whose degree is not vocational, there doesn’t seem to be a huge gap between a 2:1 and a first in the real world, as employers look for how you can apply your skills for a specific role”.

So although the figures demonstrate that there is not a level playing field in final marks across the sciences and the arts, employers, universities and above all students have found ways to adjust to this discrepancy. Perhaps that is why a system that has such wide disparities has been able to survive for as long as it has.

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Reader's comments (1)

I do agree in principle that the less subjective processes involved in science/mathematical subjects could potentially lead to a greater chance of a higher mark than in the arts. However, the above article places great emphasis on the fact that arts and humanities students face a 'seemingly tougher task' in attaining a first. Following a similar vein of thought, it is worrying that some arts courses (English at Bristol comes to mind), are examined solely via coursework in the final year. Thus, it would be excusable for science students and even fellow arts students with a higher proportion of exams to bemoan that they are given the arguably tougher task of working under exam conditions. This could even extend to the realm of A-Levels, where certain arts subjects generally still use coursework as a means of testing students whereas the sciences and other arts courses do not.

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