A third class proposal

Will classifying degrees by percentage rather than class make British higher education any better, or fairer? An academic has his doubts.

James Panton

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The UK minister for higher education, Margaret Hodge, has ordered a confidential review of the degree classification system.

An official from the Department for Education and Skills has confirmed that abolishing the system of first, upper or lower second (2.1 or 2.2) and third class awards is ‘under active consideration’ (1).

Should this bother us? On the face of it, no. But like any of the UK government’s education initiatives, you can’t take this one at face value.

The proposal is to replace firsts, seconds and thirds with transcripts of the results, which would give a breakdown of the percentages that students scored in each different element of their course: modules, theses, examinations and so on. Proponents of the change point out that in a world where increasing numbers of school-leavers are going on to university, and where increasing numbers of graduates are coming out with 2.1 degrees, employers find it difficult to differentiate between them.

While the current system awards a 2.1 to students who score somewhere within a wide range of results (say anywhere between 60 and 69 percent), giving a direct percentage mark would make it obvious who had achieved a top result (say 69.5 percent) and who had achieved a little less (say 61 percent). A transcript would allow employers to see how students performed in particular papers and modules, rather than having to judge individuals on an average of results in all areas of the degree.

It is also argued that, since the percentage point and transcript system is already used in the USA and throughout most European countries, abolishing the degree class in favour of percentages and transcripts would bring Britain into line with the rest of the world.

But while all this might seem sensible and uncontroversial, the problem is the motivation behind it. This proposal is being given ministerial consideration in the context of a broader reformulation of the structure and purpose of university education. Of all the many ideas that are taken into account in reviewing the degree classification system, academic excellence is not one of them.

Following a recent debate on BBC Radio Four’s education programme The Learning Curve, one listener emailed to say that she objects to the equation made between brain power and degree class. Many intelligent people, she argued, do not achieve degree results that actually reflect their ability, for a variety of reasons including wrong subject choice, overwork and even ‘having too much of a good time’ (2).

This is true – and rightly so. Academic qualifications are not supposed to measure the ‘whole person’. They don’t reward ‘potential’, but actual results. They penalise students who, for whatever reason – overwork, lack of interest or those who prioritised ‘having a good time’ over hours in the library – don’t know their subject well enough.

And that’s the way it should be. Academic qualifications are about how well one performs academically, and the only fair way to examine students is on the basis of what they can actually do, not what they might have been able to do had circumstances been different.

The idea that degree classification should relate to more than academic achievement reflects the trend towards prioritising students’ immediate sense of ‘self-esteem’ over what they actually learn, or achieve. Education, so the argument goes, is about empowerment – about increasing students’ confidence by making them feel good about themselves.

But for education to play a truly transformative role requires putting students under pressure. Being told that you are wrong or that you have entirely misunderstood something can dash your confidence in the short term, as can achieving low grades. The emphasis on boosting students’ self-esteem, by giving more credit to effort or potential, reduces the ability of educators to apply this pressure and raise their students’ horizons.

Traditionally at least, a first class degree was a marker of excellence that only a few ever achieved, but of which every student was potentially capable. By contrast, an upper or lower second or third class result marks a student who has performed less well – it means ‘not excellent’ and could have – and maybe even should have – done better. Yet in the current climate, to attempt to differentiate between the best and the rest – even in the narrow terms of academic achievement – tends to be derided as elitist, and it is thought that awarding some students a third class degree will only serve to make them feel like third class individuals.

The assumption that young people cannot take criticism of their work is patronising. It is also very limiting, encouraging students to define themselves by what they have done so far rather than what they are yet to achieve. Such an approach is antithetical to the spirit of education.

Another motivation behind the proposal to change the degree classification system is the fear expressed in 2000 by John Randall, then chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), that: ‘grading decisions may be highly subjective.’ (3)

A recent study by researchers at the universities of North London and Surrey seems to back up this concern. Researchers discovered that different academics gave different marks for the same essays. As a corrective to this, a percentage system based upon clearly defined criteria might seem more transparent and less open to subjective whims and prejudices.

Academics are indeed subjective, and different academics value different things. It is surely also the case that some students lose a few marks here and there because of this. But even if you could remove this element from academic life, would you want to? Academic research, by its very nature, involves the researchers’ subjective engagement with their field of study.

In challenging the idea that a student’s work should be judged as first or second class, what is being challenged is the whole notion of academic judgement. The traditional system of external examiners was intended to ensure that marking was not subject to arbitrary prejudice. Colleagues have told me of the hours they have spent arguing with other markers not only over whether a student should receive a first or a 2.1, but whether they should receive one point more or less on a particular essay. It is still the case, however, that the system of external examiners still depends upon subjective judgement and a preparedness to argue over standards and assessment criteria.

As one academic recently noted, the only way to remove the subjective element from academic assessment would be to have multiple choice examinations set by trained technicians (4). Or what about setting questions that required no more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer? That way there would be no ambiguity requiring interpretation or ‘subjective judgement’, and the number of boxes correctly ticked could be easily translated into a percentage score. Nobody is suggesting this yet – but if current trends are anything to go by, we are not far away from such technocratic forms of assessment in a number of higher education institutions.

A further argument in favour of transcripts over traditional degree classes is the issue of ‘borderline cases’: that is, students whose work falls on the borderline between one degree class and another. The argument here is that the amount of time spent arguing over a student’s degree class is wasted, since we are only arguing over one percentage point. From this it would seem to follow that we are either in the business of penalising or falsely promoting a student from one class to another, when it would seem more sensible simply to award them a percentile mark – say, 59.6 percent or 60.3 percent. Of all the suggestions, this seems the most persuasive, and it is certainly an idea that academics have been debating for some years.

It must be terrible for a graduate to discover that, not only have they achieved a 2.2 where they had hoped for a 2.1, but that the examiners decided to award them a 2.2 rather than a 2.1 because of only a few decimal points. But again, the issue is about the need for broader academic judgement. The distinction between a 2.2 and 2.1 is not, in substance, a difference of a few decimal points. It is rather a certain difference in quality.

In a climate where the very idea of academic judgement is disdained, it is hardly surprising that some would cling to what appears to be a more precise and scientific approach. But awarding 59.6 percent rather than a 2.2 would not detract from the need to make such judgements. It would only disguise qualitative assessment behind the veil of a quantitative expression.

Each of these various arguments coalesce around a worry that degrees are getting easier and standards are falling. Some argue that replacing degree classes by transcripts will have a positive impact upon the current incomparability of degrees from different institutions. We all know that a 2.1 from some institutions seems to be worth an awful lot more than a 2.1 from others – that’s why graduates from some institutions walk into high paid, high pressure jobs, while others are left to wonder why their first doesn’t mean much on the job market. The reason is simply that what is expected of a student who achieves a first class award at some institutions is very different from what is expected at others.

But why should anyone think that there would be any greater comparability between graduates who all score 65 percent from those different institutions? The problem is that the quality of education offered varies widely. Percentage marks and transcripts will not alter the imbalance.

Another strand of this argument is that, as the QAA’s John Randall pointed out in 2000, ‘if a 2.1 becomes the norm, then the system becomes self-defeating, and employers will demand a reliable means of discriminating between applicants for jobs’ (5). But the problem here is less to do with the form in which degree results are awarded than with the trend towards grade inflation.

Although employers unable to differentiate between a growing number of graduates awarded a 2.1 might seem to benefit, in the short term, from the ability to scrutinise differences in percentage points, it would only be a matter of time before grade inflation caused increasing numbers of graduates to obtain a percentage of 68 or 69 percent. Abolishing degree classes in favour of percentage points is a technical attempt to solve a profound educational problem – that of ever decreasing standards, and ever decreasing expectations of what students can achieve.

What lies behind the inflation of degree results is not the form in which degrees are awarded, but the managerial climate that dominates today’s university sector. The concern to get increasing numbers of school-leavers into university is not motivated by an egalitarian ideal of rigorous education for all, but a number-crunching exercise in which the university sector is being transformed into a factory for ‘social inclusion’.

When the priorities of higher education are transformed from educational excellence into those self-esteem and bums on seats, it is hardly surprising that while the quality of education goes down the number of ‘good’ degrees awarded goes up. When the emphasis is on the quantity of recruitment over the quality of education offered, there is a pressure upon institutions to award better results, as this is sure to benefit the number of applications they receive.

The technical character of the discussion over degree classification is a distraction from the real problems in the education sector. Over the past few years there has been a reorganisation of education around self-esteem rather than rigour, and a trend towards decreasing standards. It is no coincidence that this has coincided with increasing numbers of students being churned along a conveyor-belt that exists where real education ought to.

A serious debate about the role of university education is long overdue, but a discussion about the form in which degrees are awarded should be at the bottom of the agenda.

James Panton is lecturer in politics at Exeter College, and a researcher in the history of ideas in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) ‘Ministers want colleges to scrap degree grades’, Francis Elliot, Daily Telegraph, 15 September 2002

(2) The 24 September Learning Curve programme containing the debate between James Panton and Natalie Fenton, senior lecturer in communication and media studies at Loughborough University can be accessed from the Learning Curve website. Listeners’ responses were read out on the 1 October Learning Curve programme.

(3) ‘Why I….think degree classification should be abolished’, John Randall, Times Higher Education Supplement, 9 June 2000

(4) See ‘Why I….think consistency is not always a virtue’, Frank Furedi, Times Higher Education Supplement, 5 July 2002

(5) ‘Why I….think degree classification should be abolished’, John Randall, Times Higher Education Supplement, 9 June 2000

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