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Degree Classifications Must Change

The percentages of top grades at GCSE and A-level are now more or less static from year to year bringing a welcome relief from the annual chorus of ‘it was harder in my day’.

In fact, it is likely that the percentages will fall slightly over the next few years as the return to exams at the end of two year courses takes its toll. Attention is now increasingly turning to the universities to reform or at least justify the archaic and unsuitable degree classification system.

Currently universities award students a first, 2:1, 2:2 or a third. The proportions of students achieving a first or a 2:1 have increased considerably over the last few years. In 2004-5 11% of students achieved a first, increasing to 28% by 2017-18. In 2004-5 42% of students achieved a 2:1 (upper second) rising to 49% in 2017-18 (source Higher Education Statistics Agency). What could be driving such an increase?

Some universities argue that the students are simply better prepared for degree study. The A-level grades achieved by their undergraduates before they begin their degrees have increased in corresponding fashion. Critics of this view will, of course, simply point to past grade inflation at A-level.

A more plausible argument is that students now work much harder than previously. Perhaps the introduction of tuition fees, a competitive jobs market and the knowledge that many employers (at least three-quarters according to the Association of Graduate Recruiters) will only interview graduates with at least a 2:1 drives them on. The fear of finishing with a less than helpful 2:2 (or a ‘Desmond’ after the famous South African Bishop) must increase the amount of time spent studying for some undergraduates.

Universities are also under pressure to give a larger proportion of higher grades in order to achieve higher positions in the university league tables and to attract more and better students. A report last year found that almost half of all academic staff had felt pressure to push up grades.

Download the report (pdf)

The key boundary between the bottom of the 2:1 classification and the top of the 2:2, typically around 60% of examination marks, attracts particular attention given the difference in life chances conferred by a 2:1 gained from 60.1% and a 2:2 derived from 59.9%. Many universities have a formal procedure for examining students who fall into the border region just below the 2:1 / 2:2 boundary, with a view to awarding them a 2:1. No such procedure exists for students who happily find themselves just into the 2:1 category. All of the richness of the students’ experiences and their marks on different modules from 3 or 4 years of study are all concealed within a single classification based on a minute percentage variation.

It is simply amazing to me that universities are allowed to decide their degree classifications without formal reference to each other: despite some scrutiny of work by external examiners, there is no proper national body which aims to ensure consistency between different universities. At GCSE and A-level the much maligned Ofqual at least attempts to ensure consistency of standards between the different examination boards. Is it fair for a graduate employer to reject a graduate with a 2:2 from Cambridge University in favour of a graduate from Liverpool John Moores University with a 2:1; Cambridge have increased their proportions of firsts and 2:1s by just 3% in twenty years whilst John Moores have increased theirs by a whopping 83%.

Two obvious reforms spring to mind. Firstly, the degree classification system needs to change to a more granular and nuanced system that doesn’t leave most graduates with one of the top two possible outcomes. An A* to E grading system, familiar from A level, might be appropriate! Much work has already been done on this through a Grade Point Average system familiar from universities in the USA.

Download a pilot study in the UK (pdf)

This system sees separate modules graded from A+, A, A-, B+, B and so on down to a dismal F- with a corresponding grade point which can be averaged over all the modules making up the course. Ultimately it may be possible to compare results with those obtained by undergraduates at overseas universities, important in a global marketplace.

Secondly, we surely need a much stronger quality assurance body to gain some comparability in standard between different degree courses and institutions. Currently professional bodies such as the Engineering Institutions accredit the course content for many university courses but they have little say in the marking of papers. The Quality Assurance Agency audits universities regularly but it seems to have no power to enforce consistency between institutions. The introduction of tuition fees means that higher education has now moved to a free market but free markets only work effectively if reliable information is available to allow students to make informed choices.