I’ve had the pleasure this week of taking part in graduation ceremonies at the University of Exeter. Such a pleasure to see so many excited, high achieving students celebrating their rite of passage with friends and family and their success at achieving a First or an Upper Second.

I was working at the Quality Assurance Agency 4 years ago when the then Chief Executive, Peter Williams, made some strident comments about UK Higher Education degree classifications. He criticised a “rotten degree classification system” that had become “arbitrary and unreliable”. He came in for a lot of criticism at the time, mostly because what he had actually said was twisted manipulated by the media.

The point was that a degree classifcation system created for a tiny higher education sector had passed its sell by date and was now probably distorting student achievements. This wasn’t news then and isn’t now; Bob Burgess’ review of classifications had made the case pretty comprehensively in 2007:

The persistence of a system that concentrates on a single summative judgement results in a fixation on achieving a number that is considered ‘good’. This drives the behaviour of academic staff and students and works to the detriment of the currency of other information. When they leave university, graduates deserve more than a single number to sum up their achievements. We have concluded that this wider information could be conveyed through the European Diploma Supplement and an expanded academic transcript.

Universities have been very reluctant to do away with the system though, partly because students and employers know and understand the existing system, but also because league table use classifications in their rankings. A shame.

An article on the Guardian HE blog by Jonathan Wolff, an academic at UCL, makes a  powerful case but from the perspective of hard pressed academics trying to grapple with an over-bureaucratised system:

This year, I’ve been chair of several of our boards, “faculty observer” on others, and external examiner elsewhere, and so my desk has been littered with exam scripts and spreadsheets. My head is full of rules for dealing with classification and borderline cases. Degree schemes are like snowflakes: no two are alike. . .

. . . at least two academics assess or moderate each paper. The mark then exists in a form of limbo until ratified by the exam board, the external examiner and the university examinations section. In some cases, a single essay will be read by three different people, and the mark adjusted twice, although this is rare. Marking in the UK is a process of handicraft, not mass production.

I think he has a point, though I would argue that our system is thorough and robustly fair rather than wasteful, it does seem quite convoluted and does not lead to a great deal of differentiation between students.

He concludes that the best way forward is to issue students with transcripts that capture the entirety of a students’ achievement:

. . . we should simply issue students with transcripts to record their study, and leave it at that . . . That’s a move in the right direction, but why have a summary measure at all? School achievement isn’t summarised into a single number, and why should it be any different at university? If a student on a German and geography degree did brilliantly in German and miserably in geography what purpose is served by reducing it all to a single score? And so my plea: No more classifications. No more algorithms. No more borderlines. And, most heartfelt of all, no more exam boards.

I know it will be a wrench to move from a system that we all know and adore, but I don’t think it can come soon enough.


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