What’s your game? Union objects to US grade scheme

Students’ union and businesses look askance at use of US grade scheme. David Matthews reports

May 16, 2013

The introduction in the UK of a US-style grade point average will baffle employers and bog the sector down in “fruitless and divisive debates”, according to the vice-president for union development at the National Union of Students.

Vicki Baars’ comments are among the latest high-profile criticisms of the proposed overhaul of the UK’s traditional degree class system, led by a group of universities mainly from the Russell Group.

Speaking at a conference in London on 8 May, she said the sector should get on with introducing the Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear) before embarking on something new.

The Hear, which is backed by Universities UK but not universally supported by institutions, is intended to give employers a more rounded view of a graduate by detailing extracurricular activities and specific exam results, and could include either a degree class or a GPA score.

Employers, who were “just getting used” to the Hear, would think universities were “obsessed with constant turbulence” if they also moved to a GPA system, Ms Baars told the event, Higher Education Achievement Reports (HEAR): Implementation, Employer Engagement and the Future of Degree Classification.

Ms Baars said: “If we keep moving the goalposts, how can we expect our students to score a goal? Let’s focus on promoting the system we’ve got.”

Her comments follow a resolution at the NUS’ national conference in April to oppose the introduction of a GPA system unless it was done by the majority of universities in the UK and across a broad range of institutions.

Because the universities looking to introduce the GPA system are mostly from the Russell Group, the move “risks creating a divide between Russell Group graduates and those from other institutions”, the NUS concluded.

Anthony Smith, vice-provost for education at University College London, responded at the conference to the NUS objections. “I suspect if they had just been awarded a 2:2 they might have a slightly different view,” he said.

“I imagine there will be a lengthy period of transition,” he continued, adding, “I think ultimately the use of the GPA…will win the day.”

GPA advocates say that its introduction would encourage students to work harder because it takes into account all their marks and eliminates the “cliff edge” effect whereby all graduates with a 2:2 are ruled out by some employers.

UCL had hoped to pilot a GPA system this academic year, but last month it emerged that this was unlikely to happen before 2014-15. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has asked the Higher Education Academy to broker a “national debate” on whether the GPA could be rolled out nationwide.

Oxford Brookes University has already announced that it will bring in a GPA model alongside the traditional degree classification system from September.

The conference also heard from Lynn Martin, president of the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship, who said that the use of both the Hear and a GPA system could confuse small firms.

Based on feedback on the Hear from her institute’s 600 members, “a lot of them are deeply depressed by its complexity, and its lack of accessibility to them as small-firm owners”, Professor Martin said.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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