Time to ditch the ill-defined concept of our degree classification

The number of firsts awarded is up again this year. But, argues Peter Williams, it's due less to brainier students and due more to inconsistent award practices.

January 17, 2008

The latest data on degrees awarded in 2007 from the Higher Education Statistics Agency have created the usual interest in the number of first-class honours degrees - this year up to 13 per cent. "Good degrees" (firsts and upper seconds) now make up 60 per cent of the total, we are told. How long before everyone gets a "good" degree?

When that happens, of course, the ambitions of the Burgess group will have been largely achieved. The group's report, published last autumn, argues that bachelors should be unclassified and that the plain degree certificate should be supported by more detailed information about students' achievements, in the form of a transcript embracing the European Diploma Supplement. There would be no attempt to sort the sheep (firsts and upper seconds) from the goats (lower seconds and below) or to divide the sheep between the merino and the Jacob. It recognises that this kind of sorting is at best obscure and at worst arbitrary. It also acknowledges that it doesn't provide the level of reliability needed to allow employers to choose graduates with confidence. Unfortunately, the report didn't name a date for classification to end. It preferred to believe that this outmoded system would wither on the vine.

As a longstanding opponent of the current classification system, I went to the Hesa website with heightened interest. I even made my own spreadsheet, incorporating the data on degrees awarded since 1997. But what I found didn't quite tally with the headlines. The figures quoted (both by Hesa and in the press) relate only to classified degrees, not to all degrees awarded. Unclassified degrees are omitted from the summary statement (although pass degrees are treated as thirds). There were almost ,000 unclassified degrees in 2007: this makes quite a difference. When they are taken into account, the proportion of "good" degrees drops to 55 per cent. Firsts drop to 11.5 per cent (from 12.6 per cent - the 13 per cent figure quoted is rounded up). In fact, nearly 9 per cent of all degrees awarded in the UK are unclassified. These include both most medical degrees and the Scottish ordinary degree. Indeed, unclassified degrees appear to account for no less than 40 per cent of all Scottish degrees, which makes the statement that "of those gaining a first degree in 2006-07 (in Scotland), 16 per cent obtained a first-class honours award and 52 per cent obtained an upper second-class honours award" misleading. And are all those unclassified Scottish graduates disadvantaged in the job market, which the critics of Burgess argued would be the outcome of not classifying degrees?

So, what do the numbers really tell us about the movement of degree classes over the past 11 years? Firsts and upper seconds have increased in total from 48.2 per cent to 54.5 per cent as a percentage of all degrees awarded. But upper seconds have not grown much (from 41.1 per cent to 43.4 per cent). Lower seconds have gone down considerably from 35.6 per cent to 29 per cent. Thirds have gone down from 8.7 per cent to 7.3 per cent. And the unclassified degrees have risen slightly from 7.5 per cent to 8.7 per cent. Firsts, however, have gone up from 7.1 per cent to 11.5 per cent.

Make of all those figures what you will. More interesting, perhaps, than the percentage changes are the changes in absolute numbers. In 1997, the total number of first degrees awarded was 255,260. By 2007, the figure had risen to 319,260, an increase of about 25 per cent. In 1997, 18,079 firsts were awarded. In 2007, the figure was 36,640, more than double. Upper seconds had moved from 104,949 to 138,750, or 32 per cent more. The number of lower seconds awarded increased by only 2 per cent between 1997 and 2007, but their numbers tended to fluctuate in the intervening years, unlike the firsts and upper seconds, which just carried on rising.

&#8220Is there a magic formula that has turned the silver medallists of a decade ago into gold medallists?”

Why are those figures more interesting? Because they raise the question, for me at least, of where all those extra firsts have come from. If those students had been graduating in earlier years, would they have got upper seconds? Or were they people who would have been outside higher education altogether? And if the answer is the former, then what was the magic formula that has turned all those silver medallists into gold medallists? True, the total number of students in higher education has increased considerably between 1996-97 and now, but it would be hard to believe that so many of the new recruits were natural firsts (or upper seconds).

Unfortunately, the question is academic (in the pejorative sense), because there are no agreed UK-wide descriptors for degree classes. The 140-plus degree-awarding bodies of the UK all act individually in deciding what is a first or an upper second. One institution's first-class degree might well be another's upper (or even lower) second. And it's the same if you compare different subjects within institutions, as the Quality Assurance Agency's disquieting research showed early last year. This renders the degree class distribution statistics, in many respects, meaningless, because they are not based on common definitions or assessment practices among the awarding bodies.

All of which suggests that the time has come to face up to the real question: not whether there are too many firsts or upper seconds, but why we are continuing at all with the current illusory classification system.

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