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News > Alumni News > Headmaster's Blog: Degree Classifications Must Change

Headmaster's Blog: Degree Classifications Must Change

In his final blog of the Spring term, Senior School Headmaster Dr Paul Owen makes an assertion that 'Degree Classifications Must Change'.
22 Mar 2023
Alumni News

The return of written public examinations and the accompanying deflation of grades after the disruptions of the Covid years mean that the percentages of top grades at GCSE and A-level will settle back from this summer to a stable level.

This should bring a welcome relief from the annual chorus of ‘it was harder in my day’. Attention is now increasingly turning to the universities to address their 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 32% by 2021-22. In 2004-5 42% of students achieved an upper second rising to 46% in 2021-22 so that the large majority of students are awarded one of the top two grades. What could be driving such increases?

Grade inflation increased sharply during the Covid years as universities, like schools, found different and supportive ways to grade students who were disadvantaged by Covid restrictions. The long-term changes, however, were evident long before Covid. Simply deflating grades back to 2019 levels, as schools are doing, will not address the main causes.

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 curtail time at the Students’ Union Bar for some undergraduates.

Universities have moved from a norm-referenced classification system to the current criteria-based system. Norm-referencing measured students’ performance relative to others on the same course: the percentage of graduates in England gaining a 1st hardly changed between 1960 and 1995 at 7.3%. Criteria-based grading tries to measure students’ performances against published lists of skills or knowledge and at some institutions this has produced changes of 5% or more in a single year.

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 Guardian survey found that almost half of all academic staff had felt pressure to push up grades. This is perhaps a consequence of linking academic tenure to positive teaching outcomes, as well as institution-wide policies.

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: 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, possibly using an automated AI tool, to reject a graduate with a 2:2 from Cambridge 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 much more.

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 springs to mind! Much work has already been done on this through a Grade Point Average System familiar from universities in the USA. This system sees separate modules graded from A+, A, A-, B+, B and so on down to a dismal F-. Resistance to such a change seems ingrained, however, and pilot studies have not been well received.

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.

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