Suppose instead of measuring the actual distance jumped by Jonathan Edwards in the triple jump, the judges simply tell him whether it is a good jump, an OK jump or a really great jump. You wouldn’t be able to compare his jump with those by other good athletes or even be able to award a gold, silver or bronze medal. Most of us would view this as a flawed system of measuring achievement and would ask if the actual distance has been measured, why not make it public?
For many years British universities have done just this and classified degrees into one of four levels: 1st, 2:1, 2:2 and 3rd. We do this not because we don’t have complete information about the accomplishments or our students, but rather by tradition. In the past, many believed the primary merit of the system was its uniformity across degree courses and universities. That is, it has been thought to provide a ‘gold standard’ for comparing the quality of student achievement. If valid, this belief is a good reason for classification. Unfortunately, it is not a valid assumption. Degree classification is both imprecise and unfair to our graduates.
We need not make comparisons across the university sector to see the failure of classification; rather we can look across the different courses within Warwick or any other university. The proportion of 1st degrees awarded in the sciences is always greater than in the arts. Are science students more intelligent or harder working than those studying the arts? Of course this is not the case. The reason might simply be the difference created by marking a more quantitative subject compared to a more qualitative one.
If pressed, we must admit that we have no objective way of knowing whether the Warwick 1st is as tough to achieve as the Newtown University 1st or a 1st at any other university. If fact, the question is not a meaningful one. The degree courses across our diverse higher education sector differ substantially from one university to the next so the question of comparability is increasingly a nonsense.
Indeed that diversity in degree courses is mirrored within each of our institutions. It seems pointless to me to spend time and effort devising systems that strain to fit our range of degree programmes into neat standard degree classification boxes for the convenience of university administrators and league table compilers. I believe that students and employers would much prefer us to use that time and effort to produce more useful and transparent records of student attainment.
Degree classifications are a little more than a crude summary that we impose on the end of a detailed and robust system of accumulating progress and achievement throughout a student’s time at university. Why do we squander this detailed data that we use to derive the current distinctions between degrees use. This raw data can easily be used to produce a complete profile of student achievement – a full transcript of their academic career, complete with modules taken and marks awarded. This clear record of progress and accomplishment will enable students and future employers to have an accurate record of strengths and weaknesses.
We should start to question the exaggerated respect accorded students with a first rather than an upper second, especially when the difference between each grade may be a mark or two. We are not routinely told whether a student is a borderline first or has reached that grade easily. There are four grades, a 1st, 2:1, 2:2 and a 3rd (aside from failure) but other details are obscured. Thus we create a cliff edge for students, when a sloping hill which they could continuously strive to ascend would be preferable. Such a system would obviously be more just for those who narrowly miss a band but it also benefit all those students currently simply lumped together at the top of the degree classification degree with a first . We should have a system which allows students to see and demonstrate the variation of ability and achievement within the current first class degree band. It is a pretty poor show that no one outside an institution’s exam board can currently tell whether students with firsts got 70% or 90%.
University Senates are generally know for their conservative views and yet I know of a number of them (including Warwick’s) which has already voted in principal for reforming degree classification. So, given the apparent disenchantment with the current system I propose significant reform.
We must address concerns about the ‘cliff edge’. Students should be given their actual marks, rather than a classification. Employers would be better informed of a student’s true achievements. An unnecessary mystique would disappear. And every student would strive for the best possible marks, not just to scrape into a particular band.
I believe these changes would bring more honesty into higher education. If we are to expand the numbers of young people going to university over the next decade, the way we award degrees and professional qualifications needs to be as transparent as possible.