We need degree change, not change in degrees

June 4, 2004

Overhauling classification of student achievement must occur across the sector, argue Louise Morley, Penny Burke and Vincent Carpentier

Universities record and classify student achievement in many different ways, revealing little of what a degree course contains or the skills and competencies graduates acquire. The formulas used to calculate degree classifications vary widely across disciplines, modules and institutions, prompting concerns over accuracy, transparency and cost-effectiveness. Methods of calculating classifications vary even within one organisation, and few other countries have the same system of classifying degrees as the UK.

Yet, in the context of the Bologna Declaration, methods of recording student achievement need to be harmonised across Europe and documented in a format that is meaningful across national boundaries.

The range of marks used to define third-class honours degrees varies significantly. There is also substantial variation among pre-1992 institutions in the proportion of firsts and upper-seconds awarded, ranging from below 30 per cent to more than 70 per cent.

Borderlines are also controversial. A first can be 70 per cent or 99 per cent. In several institutions, the range of marks defining borderline candidates varies from one class to another. There are also disciplinary differences and variation across modules. Qualitative and quantitative disciplines have different rates of achievement. At Warwick University, for example, the proportion of firsts is always higher in the sciences than in the arts.

A report by the Higher Education Quality Council in 1996 noted that some subjects had wide mark distributions, and that a first in these subjects could be the result of one or two exceptionally high marks. All this raises questions about continuity and rigour and is a particular issue on modular programmes. Indeed, it is questionable whether a final classification is appropriate in modular degrees.

The ability to decode the prerequisites for a good classification has been closely linked to socioeconomic advantage. Research has shown that students' experiences are highly gendered, particularly in elite institutions. For example, at Cambridge University more men than women are awarded first-class honours degrees, despite homogeneous entry qualifications. And this has far-reaching implications: a good degree is said to increase pay in most subjects, with first-class degree-holders earning 10 per cent more than other graduates.

Social class, too, is an issue. There are concerns that it is the international research reputation, and the status, of the university, rather than the degree class, that carries weight in the labour market.

This is particularly marked in relation to the overrepresentation of working-class students in post-1992 institutions.

Students and employers do not always know how classifications are achieved, and employers complain that the classification does not provide enough information for recruitment and does not allow discrimination between students' achievements.

The discriminatory aspect will need to be handled with care. Two years ago, Margaret Hodge, the former higher education minister, raised concerns about grade inflation. At this time, nine out of ten Oxford University students were awarded a first or upper-second - up 20 per cent over 15 years. In 1973, the lower-second was the modal degree; now it is the upper-second.

One concern is that grade inflation is due to changing courses, structures and practices and unchanging examination practices. On the other hand, there is a view that keeping the system of measuring student achievement allows mapping of improved standards over time. According to this view, classifications are going up because they reflect overall improvement of standards in the sector.

One alternative to the traditional degree classification is to adopt the model used for masters programmes - pass, fail or distinction. Another option is to introduce a system where there is no differentiated grade at all, with the transcript the central source of information. A new system for recording student achievement is personal development planning. But this is not universal, and some consider the removal of any sort of differentiation to be undesirable because it might take away any incentive to learners to do well.

Degree classifications are reified badges of distinction that add or reduce cultural and human capital. Change needs to occur across the sector and not just in the post-1992 institutions dealing largely with new student constituencies. Partial reform could reinforce institutional hierarchies and create further differentiation in the labour market.

Louise Morley, Penny Burke and Vincent Carpentier are based at the Centre for Higher Education Studies, Institute of Education, University of London.

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