What '2.2' doesn't say

November 5, 2004

Degree classification fails to give the full picture of a student's achievements, insists Robert Burgess

We all love scores and ratings. Whole industries revolve around the top 50 or 100 of everything from videos to washing machines.

Even universities are not immune. They celebrate the high scores they get and dismiss as rigged or inaccurate the rankings in which they perform badly. We cannot help feeling that such scores are essential to informed decisions in a complex world.

Yet with such summaries, more complex information is sometimes ignored and mythology takes its place. For instance, there is the myth that "as everyone gets 2.1s and firsts nowadays, 2.2s and thirds are valueless". But for many students a 2.2 or third represents a significant achievement.

If employers restricted recruitment to those achieving firsts and 2.1s, they would miss out on large numbers of students who have much to offer.

Indeed, employer experience bears this out.

I do not claim that replacing the degree classification system would dispel such myths. But we should certainly question them.

It is easy to understand the desire of students, after all their hard work, to have some sign that they have finally gained their reward. You can also understand the competitive nature of comparing achievements.

But one of the things we are trying to teach undergraduates is the need to question assumptions and to think of different, even radical, ways of approaching tasks.

We should ask whether the degree classification system effectively serves a higher education system that has grown so much that some faculties are larger today than whole universities were 20 years ago.

But it is not administrative convenience that is leading us to question the current system. It is the basic question of how we most accurately represent the achievements, skills and experiences of a diverse range of students attending more than 50,000 programmes at more than 200 institutions.

We do not like the system. But we do not have a ready-made alternative.

Members of the Measuring and Recording Student Achievement Scoping Group are not suggesting change for the sake of change. We are suggesting that the sector tests alternatives.

Considerable advances have already been made in relation to progress files, transcripts and personal development planning.

We should remember that grades and assessment are not just about indicating to a student that they have finished. And they aren't something to simply wave in front of employers. Assessment and its outcomes are about encouraging, informing and developing the successes.

Employers are realising that staff are an investment decision that cannot be made on the basis of summaries. A true measure of achievement is how you get there, not just what you get.

The sector is in the process of giving prospective students considerably more information about institutions so that they can make informed choices.

We should be in the business of providing employers with more information about graduates so that they can make informed choices.

Numerical scores have their place, and there is a wide range of scores contributing to degree classifications. This should continue, as scores provide feedback to students about performance.

It is the need to reduce it all into a final score with which I take issue.

I also do not want to give the impression that offering a fuller account of a student's performance is something new.

We already have the changes in practice that I have mentioned, and every student who has filled in a job application or drafted a CV knows all too well the amount of detail that can be involved.

I would suggest that the present degree classification system simply gets in the way of providing a wider picture. In the mass higher education system, it has come to the end of its useful life. Universities, employers and students should be much more concerned with the story that lies behind it.

Robert Burgess is vice-chancellor of Leicester University and chair of the Measuring and Recording Student Achievement Scoping Group. Additional research by Universities UK.

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