New class proposed to end 2:1 bonanza

November 9, 2006

Review body suggests adding a level to degree classification to help bosses sift out graduates. Phil Baty reports.

A plan to add an extra classification to the traditional second-class honours degree has been cautiously suggested by a government-backed review body.

The proposal to increase the scale of the traditional classification system is made in the latest document from the Student Achievement Steering Group.

It comes amid concerns that 43 per cent of all graduates obtained a 2:1 last year, making it harder for potential employers to differentiate between applicants.

The plan, to insert a new class between 2:1 and 2:2, or between a 2:1 and a first, has been mooted despite the group's statement that it does not favour the idea.

It has been put forward as part of a second wave of consultation after the group acknowledged that its 2005 proposal to scrap classifications altogether in favour of a simple scale of pass/fail/distinction lacked sufficient support.

There were fears this week that the review of the system, prompted by the 2003 White Paper on higher education, may fail to change the status quo.

A final report recommending reforms, due next month, will not be ready until spring 2007. As all universities are autonomous and any reform requires unanimous backing, hopes for significant change are fading fast.

"Everyone seems to agree that the classification system is out-dated," said Wes Streeting, vice-president of the National Union of Students and a member of the group. "But, as ever, there is no consensus about what should replace it. We can't allow the sector to resort to the status quo because it is not brave enough."

The Association of Graduate Recruiters, which was also represented in the group, this week suggested that there should be a five-year moratorium on any change to classifications, warning that employers preferred "the devil they know".

The Student Achievement group, led by Leicester University vice-chancellor Bob Burgess, concluded in 2004 that the classification system was "not fit for purpose", and in September 2005, published proposals for a simple pass/fail system with a "distinction" reserved for an elite.

This would be accompanied by a detailed transcript of a student's achievement across all individual elements of their degree.

But in a paper published last month, the Burgess group acknowledges that there is insufficient support for its plans. Only about half of respondents "indicated a measure of agreement with the need to replace the UK classification system", and the specific pass/fail/distinction plan "did not find favour".

The "distinction" grade is roundly rejected on the grounds that "institutions wanted to avoid any notion of quotas".

The group reports that it is more convinced than ever that current classifications are not appropriate, and it still favours a pass/fail system, but without the highly unpopular "distinction" grade.

But the report says that it is putting forward the plan to increase the scales of classification, despite its reservations, "as this is a discussion document The argument is that sub-dividing the 2.1 would help employers and others to differentiate between students."

Attention may now turn to encouraging universities voluntarily to improve the way they assess and classify degrees.

David Allen, head of the Association of Heads of University Administration, said that while the AHUA had not taken a collective view, he personally did not support the plan for a pass/fail system. "The system of classified honours degrees is massively ingrained in the psyches of employers, graduates and students. It would be much less perilous to reform than abandon it."

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