Uplift 'cheapens degrees' claim

December 22, 2006

University is attacked over plan to boost number of firsts in a bid to move up the league tables. Phil Baty reports

Bangor University was accused this week of lowering its academic standards with a proposal to boost the number of first-class degrees it awards.

According to a paper leaked to The Times Higher , the university agreed a system for calculating student results that would mean that about 60 per cent of graduates would obtain either a first or an upper-second class degree in 2007, compared with about 52 per cent under the current system.

The paper, by pro vice-chancellor Tom Corns, says that the university's key local rival, Aberystwyth University, "awarded 6.7 per cent more first and upper-second class degrees than we did". At the time, this helped place Bangor eight positions below Aberystwyth in The Times 2005 league table of universities.

He says: "We must redress the balance with all expedition", meaning the reforms are likely to take effect for 2007 graduates rather than for the 2007 entry cohort.

The move prompted heavy criticism this week. Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: "Hitherto, universities have been trusted to uphold degree standards, but such behaviour calls into question the desirability of continuing to allow them free rein in awarding their own degrees. Perhaps there should be an independent regulatory body."

He suggested that a body such as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which regulates schools' exam awards, could be set up for higher education.

Sam Burnett, president of Bangor student union, said that Bangor had been "very naughty".

"The issue isn't about the system that should be in place... University figures seem to have identified the quickest way to boost Bangor up the league tables and will cheapen degrees in the process. Maybe it would be easier just to add 5 per cent to everyone's scores next July."

Bangor has resolved to adopt a complex new system for calculating a final degree result, called "cascading", where all students' results are grouped into a hierarchy of three groups and aggregated differently according to group.

"The procedure both boosts the better performances and mitigates the worst," according to the paper.

The paper includes an example of one student who achieved marks ranging from 65 per cent to 46 per cent in 24 units of assessment. The current system would give an overall score of 58.75 per cent, worth a lower second.

Under the new system, the same marks get an overall score of 60.75 per cent, worth an upper second.

Similar controversies have hit other universities recently.

Liverpool University changed the way it calculated degrees this year as part of contingency plans to cope with the national boycott of exam marking in spring. Some 72 per cent of students received a first or upper second in 2006, compared with 63 per cent last year.

There was also controversy at the London College of Fashion after an e-mail leaked to The Times Higher indicated that some staff understood there was a policy, denied by the college, to arbitrarily add additional marks to overseas students' results.

A government-backed review on recording student achievement, headed by Leicester University vice-chancellor Bob Burgess, is due to report in the new year.

It has already declared the classification system "unfit for purpose" - backed by the Quality Assurance Agency, which described the system as little better than a "lottery".

It is likely to stick with a proposal for a new system, based on a simple pass/fail grade, and backed by a detailed transcript of a student's achievement.

A spokeswoman for BangorJsaid: "The university senate has agreed, in general terms, to pursue a revised procedure for classifying degrees to bring us into line with other universities. This is subject to detailed discussions about its implementation and will include discussions with external examiners.

"The timing of the introduction of any new procedure has not been determined."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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