Quest for new grade system: must try harder

November 23, 2007

The Burgess report reveals a sector ducking the issue of our outdated degree classifications, argues Roger Brown. Anyone seeking a crash course in some of the dilemmas the sector currently faces could do worse than read the Burgess group's final report.

For a start, there is the very clear contradiction - in reality, incompatibility - between the market's requirement for a single indicator of a student's academic achievement, hitherto represented by the honours degree classification, and the unfairness and inappropriateness, on educational grounds, of such a measure.

There is agreement that the classified honours degree is no longer fit for purpose, but there is a lack of consensus on a replacement. There is continuing evidence, found in other recent studies, of the limitations and imperfections of current assessment practices, hardly assisted by the acknowledgement of how long those weaknesses have persisted or how deep they go.

Above all, there is insufficient appreciation of how higher education in the UK has changed, with an unwillingness to grapple with the implications. The report's comment to the effect that respondents preferred to suggest changes within the current system rather than consider a new system really says it all.

In effect, there are three main sets of tensions here that may be worth unpacking.

The first is between the educationists' view of what is needed - a rich, nuanced, representative account of a student's achievement without an overall "score" - and the pressures exerted, ultimately by market forces, for a single indicator that facilitates selection for purposes mostly beyond the academy.

The report argues, correctly, that on educational grounds, there is no case for a single measure. But it acknowledges - as did the former Higher Education Quality Council in research on this subject a decade ago - the continuing demand from employers and others for a convenient screening device.

Within this, and an equally inescapable consequence of market forces, is the pressure on gradings, so that a student who doesn't manage at least a 2.1 is held to be a failure. Hence the grade inflation that, as in the US, is most prevalent among the most prestigious, or at least prestige- seeking, institutions, as they engage in what is increasingly positional rather than economic competition.

The second tension is between what would be feasible in an elite system and what is appropriate in a mass one. As Peter Scott, pro vice-chancellor of Leeds University, pointed out many years ago that while we had moved to a mass system, we continued to espouse elite values. The survival of the classified honours degree, and the seeming inability to come up with a successor, is a locus classicus. While everyone accepts the need for change, no one, it appears, is prepared to accept the logical solution, which is surely an enhanced academic transcript along the lines adumbrated by the committee. There are, incidentally, clear parallels with the future of A levels, although so far the sector has escaped the prolonged existential agony that schools and colleges have experienced since the very first reform efforts in the 1970s.

The third tension is between the authority accorded to assessment outcomes and the fragililty of many of the underlying judgements. This has been highlighted in recent studies by Mantz Yorke and Sue Bloxham.

The report notes that the sector has been "intermittently engaged with these issues for decades". This rather understates the position. There has been a succession of clear warnings over at least the past 15 years about the validity and reliability of internal assessment regimes, most notably in the interim and final reports of Higher Education Quality Committee's graduate standards programme (referenced but not referred to in the report).

Building on the work of David Warren-Piper, professor of higher education at the University of Queensland, and on the basis of a body of work far larger than that commissioned by Burgess, the HEQC recommended that institutions put much greater effort into internal and external benchmarking at each stage of programme design, delivery and assessment, rather than simply rely for authority on an increasingly overburdened and dysfunctional external examiner system. They also needed to assert their authority over autonomous disciplinary communities, another theme of Burgess.

The HEQC disappeared soon afterwards. Its functions were in effect split between the Quality Assurance Agency and what is now the Higher Education Academy, so that the ability to take an overview of these matters, and to integrate assurance with enhancement, was lost. The former agency's clumsy and inappropriate solution to variable standards - to create what would in effect have been a national system of examiners - was easily beaten off.

Nevertheless the questions about the quality of institutional assessments remain and are given even greater salience by this report. Such lack of professionalism, for that is what it ultimately is, cannot be blamed on government intervention or market forces. But it seriously weakens our ability to resist them. We must pull our socks up.

Roger Brown is professor of higher education policy, co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Development at Liverpool Hope University, former vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University and former CEO of the HEQC.

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