No one knows what a degree is worth, says Guild of Educators

Problems with ‘consistency and interpretation’ mean it may be time to ‘bust open’ classification. Hannah Fearn writes

May 24, 2009

University degrees are no longer comparable, and it can be hard to know what a first-class qualification now means, the Guild of Educators has said.

At a meeting to draw together the discussions from a series of breakfast seminars on falling standards in education, the guild concluded that widening access to higher education had led to a “blurring of the lines” in which members could no longer have faith in the UK university degree as a gold standard.

“While everyone appreciates that higher education is a good thing in itself and it’s good to get more and more people into it, we generally tended to feel that [it has resulted in our losing] the ability to be quite so sure what a degree meant, and that was perhaps a problem,” said David Taylor, master of the guild.

The seminars held by the group included an address by Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency.

Mr Taylor said there was a problem with the “consistency and interpretation” of degree results because degrees today served different purposes and because the expanded university sector accepted candidates with a wide range of abilities.

“We all have to come to terms with the fact that higher education is an infinitely different thing from what it was when we [in the guild] were young,” he said. “It’s hard for some of us to grasp.”

The guild’s members had concluded that universities should consider new ways of differentiating graduates, he said.

“We were inclined to wonder whether the future is to bust open that degree classification,” he said. “If it does give the initial impression that all firsts are equal, then maybe we’d be better off looking at degrees in a rather different way.”

He added that Mr Williams had said that the QAA would be keen to discuss the issue.

But although guild members were eager to establish a national standard of higher education, the QAA chief pointed out that implementing a benchmark would be difficult because of universities’ commitment to autonomy and self-assessment.

The discussions also led the guild to conclude that universities must do more to meet the needs of UK business. “We need to recognise that we need students who fit what society and professions need, and we’re some way away from having that in higher education,” Mr Taylor said.

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