Test answer is anybody's guess

February 11, 2000

A number of students do get degrees despite very evident faults in the way they write (Letters, THES, February 4). But this is not a recent development. The move towards a mass system has simply made it more visible.

It is a problem created by the way the degree classification system works. An overwhelming preoccupation with first-class degrees means that the whole system is defined in their terms. So a 2:1 is effectively defined as not quite so good as a first, a 2:2 as not quite so good as a 2:1. By the time you reach third class degrees, nobody cares very much and anything goes.

By starting with what is considered to be the best, the classification principle is made a negative one - the other classes are principally defined by the ways they do not measure up to firsts. As an external examiner, I was recently confronted by a description of a third-class degree that was entirely negative. It listed all the things students could not do. Why should students be awarded degrees as a mark of their failures?

What higher education needs is a strong pass standard. We ought to be able to describe the basic abilities anybody who gets a degree should have. A change of the classification system to a pass/distinction/fail would be more appropriate for a mass system.

If there were a strong pass standard, we would have to think more substantially about the learning of all students than we do now.

Alan Lovell Senior lecturer in media and cultural studies Staffordshire University

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