New rules will scrap 'negative' awards

October 22, 1999

Tony Tysome and Alison Goddard on the QAA's qualifications blueprint

A new definition of degrees and strict rules on how they are described are to be ushered in by the Quality Assurance Agency, which this week unveiled its proposals for a higher education qualifications framework.

The framework blueprint, formulated in the light of proposals by the Dearing committee, is "central" to the new quality assurance system being introduced by the QAA, a consultation paper says.

The QAA says the framework, which includes separate proposals for Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, is intended to:

Position all higher education qualifications relative to each other and other types of qualifications in the UK and abroad

Underpin the standards of qualifications

Ensure accuracy and consistency in titles

Clarify routes of progression

Establish a common currency for credit accumulation and


The framework is designed to embrace the main existing systems in Scotland and the rest of the UK, to accommodate any new qualifications and to link to professional and vocational qualifications, the paper says.

It builds on the proposals of the Dearing committee, which said the framework should "provide the structure for a new approach to higher education" and also takes into account the work of various consortia of institutions concerned with credit accumulation and transfer.

The QAA says the framework should be structured in terms of levels of intended outcome - in other words, what a student is meant to know or be able to do on completion of a course of study.

All qualifications should be defined in terms of minimum amounts of credit notched up at these levels. All qualifications sharing the same title should have the same minimum credit requirements and levels. Each module should also be defined in terms of outcomes, credits and levels.

The paper says credit should be awarded only on the basis of achievement of "positively-

defined outcomes" - not "time served". All properly assessed and quality assured learning, wherever or however achieved, should be awarded credit, although it will be up to institutions to decide what credit they accept as counting towards their awards.

Each qualification within the framework should be "defined in terms of verbal description of its purpose and nature, and of the attributes that its holder would be expected to possess", the QAA adds.

Undergraduate level

The paper proposes the creation of a new non-honours degree qualification, to be called a "general degree".

This might be similar to the Scottish ordinary degree, which is currently taken by nearly a quarter of Scottish students.

The case for a general degree in England, Wales and Northern Ireland "is strengthened by the drives to increase participation in higher education and to stimulate lifelong learning", the paper says. The general degree title would be a new qualification, distinct from existing pass degrees, and would "signal its intended purpose as a general preparation for employment".

Alongside this proposal, the paper calls for the pass degree to be phased out. It says such awards "are damaging to the students concerned, to higher education and the wider society". It adds: "It is unacceptable that students should be conferred qualifications for outcomes defined in negative and residual ways", and "no qualification should be awarded as compensation for failure or by default".

Existing pass degrees should be revised to meet the requirements of the new general degree, which would carry a minimum 360 credits, with at least 60 at "level HE3" (a bachelor degree with honours would also carry 360 credits, but with a minimum 100 at level HE3). The proposed qualifications definitions are framed in terms that would make it impossible for a student who failed to get an honours degree to then be awarded a general degree instead without gaining further credit.

The Scottish ordinary degree should be retained, but some degrees might need to be upgraded to meet the new credit point requirements.

The paper says a new general degree would fit naturally with various forms of work-based learning, and support attempts to develop programmes of study that build on the Higher National Certificate.

Postgraduate level

The QAA proposes to make the new vocational doctoral programmes comparable with the traditional PhD or DPhil and other postgraduate qualifications.

It intends to allocate credits to all postgraduate qualifications other than the PhD or DPhil, which will continue to be assessed solely by a final thesis and viva.

Students taking doctoral qualifications such as the engineering qualification EngD spend three-quarters of their time doing an industrial research project and the remainder developing technical, business, managerial and personal skills.

These students will have to accumulate 540 credits, the notional equivalent of three years' full-time study. Masters degrees will consist of 180 credits, and there will be no distinction between taught and research masters. Postgraduate diplomas will consist of 120 credits and postgraduate certificates 60 credits.

The pressure on PhD students, who will still have to write a substantial thesis and endure a viva to gain a PhD, will increase under the QAA's proposals. At present, students who fail their PhDs can be offered a lower qualification such as an MPhil instead. The QAA intends to abolish this option: "Awards will reflect positive achievements, and will not be offered as compensation for failure at another level."

The QAA intends that the masters degrees handed out by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge should be plainly labelled as such. "Titles used by institutions for their honorary awards must make clear the honorary nature of the award," states the QAA document.

The QAA started examining postgraduate qualifications back in 1996 and held a consultation on the subject earlier this year, the results of which were published this week alongside the consultation on aspects of the qualifications frameworks not already covered.

The English, Welsh and Northern Irish Qualifications Framework Development Group and the Scottish Qualifications Framework Development Group have agreed an identical structure at postgraduate levels across the United Kingdom.


The Quality Assurance Agency proposes five levels of qualifications, from HE certificates (HE1) to doctorates (HE5) - and six levels in Scotland.

Bachelors degree with honours

Scotland: 480 credits, with at least 100 at Scottish level HE4.

Rest of the UK: 360 credits, with at least 100 at level HE3.

Non-honours degrees

Ordinary degree

(Scotland): 360 credits, with at least 100 at Scottish level HE3.

General degree (rest of UK): 360 credits, with at least 60 at level HE3 and a further 180 at level HE2 or above.

Diploma of HE

Scotland: 240 credits, with at least 100 at Scottish level HE2.

Rest of the UK: 240

credits, with at least 100 at level HE2.

Certificate of HE

Scotland: 120 credits, with at least 100 at Scottish level HE1.

Rest of the UK: 120

credits, with at least 100 at level HE1.

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