QAA confirms not only wide variations in guidance on classification but also that universities have poor control over examiners, says Melanie Newman
Academic examiners have worried about it for years, but now a new report confirms that the class of degree a student achieves depends on the marking practices in the subject studied and the fluctuating rules of a university.
The Quality Assurance Agency believes overall academic standards are being maintained but in a briefing paper, published this week, it concludes that in general higher education institutions have "only weak control" over the marking practices of examiners.
The QAA paper reveals that one university's examiners were swapping between two methods of degree classification to "optimise" student success rates.
The paper, based on 128 institutional audit reports published between 2003 and 2006, reveals how institutions admitted that marks close to the maximum are obtainable in some subjects, while in others such high marks are never given.
Joint honours students suffer the most from inconsistent assessment and classification processes, the paper says. One institution noted that these students were "significantly less likely" to achieve a first-class degree than single-honours students.
The QAA also questions universities' ability to moderate decisions on degree classifications that have been delegated to assessment boards. One institution's examining boards were making decisions without any reference to or guidance from higher authorities. Another institution referred to "limited quality control" above and beyond the recommendations for award of degrees set out by its academic schools.
And where universities delegate decisions on classification to assessment boards at faculty, school or department levels, maintaining consistency becomes particularly difficult, the QAA says.
Boards of examiners have differing powers of discretion when deciding degree classifications. One audit report notes that it "may include discounting the lowest module mark", providing the pass mark is reached.
Another university offered no institution-wide guidance on the use of discretion and did not monitor how schools exercised their discretionary powers.
Several institutions use multiple methods for assessment and classification. While these would not necessarily result in unfairness, one audit report raised doubts over an institution's use of three classification methods, noting a "lack of formal procedures for ensuring equity of treatment of students".
Difficulties continued even where universities had reduced the number of classification methods used.
At one institution, which had sanctioned two methods, boards of examiners were changing the method they used "so as to optimise student success". The university's audit report said that there was "potential for unfairness".
Many of the institutions are now reviewing their classification arrangements. Peter Williams, QAA chief executive, said: "The achievement of reliable and consistent degree classifications matters to all in the higher education community. How they are determined should be clear to all who have to depend on them.
"In this area, the evidence of the QAA's institution audits is not completely reassuring."
The report will add weight to claims by the Burgess group, chaired by Robert Burgess, vice-chancellor of Leicester University, that the classification system is not fit for purpose.
A spokesman for Universities UK said: "The report demonstrates the need to provide more information about student achievement, which is why the findings of the Burgess review will be important."
But Alan Smithers, head of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: "Degree classes give a broad comparison of how well students have done in relation to their fellow and past students in that subject at that university. Employers know this because they take into account the subject, university and often A-level results," he said.
He added that he suspected the QAA was trying to build a case for scrapping degree classes.
Wes Streeting, National Union of Students vice-president for education, said: "A new system is needed - one that is transparent, robust, consistent and fair."
* A private education means little in terms of the class of degree gained by Oxbridge students. Figures from Oxford and Cambridge universities show 21 per cent of students from fee-paying schools gain firsts compared with 19 per cent from state schools. Some 63 per cent from private schools received 2:1s compared with 62 per cent from state schools.
WHAT THE AGENCY UNCOVERED
* Degree standards overall are high, but it cannot be assumed that the standard of students achieving the same degree classification will be the same or similar
* A degree classification will depend on the institution, the subject and the time of study, as well as the student's achievement
* Universities have weak control over examiners' marking practices
* Pre-1992 universities show the greatest variations in methods used to classify degrees
* Arrangements for joint and combined honours students are particularly weak and inconsistent
* There are grounds to question external examiners' ability to compare achievements across more than a few institutions
* Delegating classification decisions to assessment boards makes maintaining consistency even more difficult.