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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 November, 2004, 08:14 GMT
Degree grades 'in need of update'
Professor Robert Burgess
Prof Burgess said there was no obvious replacement for degrees
The university degree grading system has "outlived its usefulness and is no longer fit for purpose", a report says.

Students who pass courses are awarded one of four classes: first, upper-second, lower-second or third.

But the author of the report, Professor Robert Burgess, says this does not give enough information about candidates.

Prof Burgess, vice-chancellor of Leicester University, suggests a fuller "progress file" could be needed so employers can judge them better.

The system of "credits", where students gather up "points" towards a degree - sometimes at more than one university - is also discussed.

Surge in top marks

Prof Burgess notes there is "no obvious single alternative to the honours degree classification".

autumnal scene on university campus

He said: "Examiners amass a vast quantity of information in order to be able to reach the summative degree classification and we believe there could be potential to make more of this more widely available."

His report adds to a growing concern that degree classes - which started about 200 years ago - are not distinguishing between above-average candidates.

The Quality Assurance Agency, which oversees standards in higher education, said there had been "no deterioration in quality".

But critics remain unconvinced, saying top grades are becoming easier to achieve.

David Thomas
Universities are caught in a trap. If they impose tough standards, they will be ruled out and become unattractive
David Thomas

In 2003, the last year for which figures are available, 55.6% of students gained an upper-second (2:1) grade or a first.

In the early 1980s around a third attained these, with some 60% getting a lower second (2:2).

Liberal Democratic peer Lord Oakshott told BBC News he was "very worried" about the integrity of degrees.

He said: "Has something really changed so much that over the last five years we're giving 46% more firsts?

"Speaking not just as a party spokesman but as a concerned parent and an employer I really wonder what is going on. These figures look very suspicious."

David Thomas, chief executive of the Careers Advisory Research Council, said prospective students were now looking at the proportion of 2:1s and firsts awarded by universities before applying.

As, overall, there were more higher education places than students - unlike in the past - it had become a "buyers' market".

To attract students, universities were forced to award more top grades, which were then devalued, Mr Thomas said.

He added: "Universities are caught in a trap. If they impose tough standards, they will be ruled out and become unattractive."


To counter the glut of 2:1s, Mr Thomas recommends sub-dividing that class of degree even further, to recognise the "very good but not quite first-class" students.

Prof Burgess said higher marks could possibly be equated to improvements in the quality of teaching.

But he said there was "an urgent need to devise an assessment system that reflects students' achievements and provides a meaningful picture of their abilities to employers".

However, the report acknowledges that the UK degree is a "robust, internationally recognised qualification".

The Higher Education Minister, Kim Howells, said: "Any development of the current degree classification system is entirely for the sector to determine, in consultation with the main users - students and employers.

"But I agree with Professor Burgess it is absolutely essential that any changes do not undermine the high international standing of UK degrees."

The report was carried out on behalf of Universities UK (UUK), which represents vice-chancellors, and the Conference of Principals, representing heads of higher education colleges.

UUK's chief executive, Baroness Warwick, said the findings were of "great importance" and would involve a "radical change" if implemented.

Why there are calls for a shake-up of degree grades

Doubts over improved degrees
09 Jun 03 |  Education
Degree grades 'show dumbing down'
16 Mar 04 |  Education

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