BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Thursday, 4 November, 2004, 14:02 GMT
Can we replace degree grades?
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News education reporter

The UK's degree-awarding system has been described in a report as out-of-date and of little use to employers trying to choose between job candidates.

According to Professor Robert Burgess, vice-chancellor of Leicester University, we need to look for alternatives to awarding a first-, upper-second-, lower-second- or third-class degree.

He has spoken of the need for links with Europe and the United States.

But what actually happens abroad?

Here is a look at two very different systems.


The Burgess report bemoans the fact that the UK's degree classes give a very broad-brush picture of a student's achievements.

In the US, universities instead use a purely statistical way of measuring progress, as complex to British minds as working out baseball averages.

Each of the courses a student takes in a term is worth a number of "units" or "credits".

Most are worth three units.

These are graded A, B, C, D or fail. An A gets four points; a B three; a C two; a D one; and a failure none.


Universities multiply the number of units by the grade number. So, an A for a three-unit course is worth 12 points.

At the end of the term, they divide the number of accumulated grade points by the number of units to get a student's Grade Point Average (GPA).

For instance, someone might accumulate nine unit points in a term and get 24 points (an A and two Cs).

Divide the points (24) by the units (9) and you get a GPA of 2.67 - just below a B (3) equivalent.

The average is worked out term-by-term and a rolling average ends in a final GPA at the finish of the degree course.

Employers get a more exact idea of where job candidates stand when they look at the final grade.

However, whether a couple of hundredths of a point would make that much difference is debatable.

US students tend to specialise less early on than their UK counterparts.

So, transcripts of performances in all exams taken during a course are also available.

An employer might use these to pick and choose particular relevant skills - such as a manufacturer who cares more about units in chemistry than English literature.

The GPA undoubtedly gives a "purer" version of a student's overall progress, but even in the US there have been accusations of grade inflation, as in the UK.

However, Professor Burgess seems to like the idea of "credits", based on a single standard, which would allow students to take different parts of their degree at different universities - even in different countries.

It could happen here, but it would mean a huge cultural change.

One thing for sure is that Americans find our system of grading more than half of students as first-class or upper-second-class rather crude.


As in the US, students gather "credits", which work towards a final degree.

But no overall grade is given. It is more a matter of getting "past the post".

One week of successful full-time study equals one credit.

An academic year usually yields 40 credits - for 40 weeks.

The equivalent of a UK degree needs 120 units - after three years.

Students are awarded 20 credits for passing half-yearly exams. They can keep attempting these until they pass, and the fact a test is retaken is never mentioned.

No grades

Most get a pass grade but the best are awarded a "distinction". But the number of credits is the same, however good the pass.

In the end, when a student gets enough points, they gain a degree.

This is not graded, unlike both the UK and US. You either have a degree or you do not.

However, on the degree certificate comes a transcript, showing whether a pass or distinction was achieved for each part of the course.

Nothing more is added.

Even students who do not get full degrees can still claim their transcript, showing how many credits they gained and whether any were distinctions.

The information might seem a bit threadbare for an employer trying to distinguish between two job applicants.

But a spokeswoman for Sweden's National Agency for Higher Education said: "There have never been any big problems with companies looking at candidates."

Without grades, the Swedish system is even further than our own from the US system.

But transcripts, in one form or another, are a common theme.

Country profile: United States of America
03 Nov 04 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Sweden
14 Jul 04 |  Country profiles
Degree grades 'in need of update'
04 Nov 04 |  Education
Degree grades 'show dumbing down'
16 Mar 04 |  Education

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | World | UK | England | Northern Ireland | Scotland | Wales | Politics
Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health | Education
Have Your Say | Magazine | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific