Page last updated at 18:30 GMT, Monday, 23 June 2008 19:30 UK

Watchdog: Degree grades arbitrary

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Examiners
The watchdog says the degree grade system no longer works

The universities' watchdog has warned of problems with degree grades, external examiners and the over-recruitment of overseas students.

Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), says the current degree classification system is "arbitrary and unreliable".

He also warns of universities which have become financially dependent on the higher fees of overseas students.

But Mr Williams says that in general, university standards remain robust.

'Rotten system'

He does however say that universities are "shooting themselves in the foot" by trying to fit so many different types of students and abilities into the grading system of first and second class degrees.

There is a belief from some overseas students that if they pay their fees, they will get a degree - we have to make clear that does not operate here
Peter Williams
QAA chief executive

"The way that degrees are classified is a rotten system," he says. "It just doesn't work any more."

The QAA has published a series of reports that raise questions about the way in which degree standards are assessed in an expanding, globalised university system.

This highlights concerns about inconsistencies in assessment, "weaknesses" in dealing with plagiarism, "continuing difficulties" with degree classification and bad practice in the use of external examiners.

The report on assessment found inconsistencies in marking and the awarding of grades.

There are also concerns about some universities recruiting overseas students in an "unsustainable fashion". The report notes that one university has more than 40% of its intake from overseas.

"There is a belief from some overseas students that if they pay their fees, they will get a degree," Mr Williams said.

"We have to make clear that does not operate here."

The problem "starts with recruitment", he says - and he warns that the use of agents to recruit overseas students could mean lowering standards.

"The problem is that when agents are paid to recruit overseas students, they might be encouraged to take short cuts," he says.

But when there are now universities which now depend on the fees from overseas students, he says that this has become a difficult problem to unravel.

'Back biting'

Last week, the BBC News website published a whistleblower's claim that a leading university was awarding postgraduate degrees to overseas students who could barely speak English.

In response, large numbers of academics and students have sent in e-mails with allegations of degree standards being manipulated, many claiming there were financial pressures to pass students regardless of ability.

Mr Williams questions the extent of such problems - saying higher education has always been full of "factions, turbulence and backbiting".

But he says there are questions about how the assessment practices inherited from a small-scale university sector can be relevant to the academic, financial and consumer pressures of the modern, mass-participation form of higher education.

In particular, he calls for the abolition of the current system of grades - firsts, second and third class degrees - which he says have become "meaningless".

Mr Williams says the current classification system fails to distinguish between the achievements of students of very different levels of ability at very different institutions.

'Nonsense'

"It's quite clearly nonsense to say they're all of equal value," he says.

"Should we try to pretend that the outcomes are the same?"

The reports from the QAA raise some worries about the effectiveness of the external examiner system, in which examiners from other universities are brought in to provide an external verification of standards.

But Mr Williams emphasises that the external examiners should not be mistaken for "inspectors". They operate within an autonomous university system - and there is no requirement for their reports to be published.

He says a debate about making their reports available concluded that they would not be "candid" if they were put into the public arena.

However Mr Williams also warned that the serious debate about standards was a reflection of a healthy and well-governed system - and that it would be wrong to see it as a "wasteland of bad standards".

In response, Diana Warwick, chief executive of the higher education representative body, Universities UK, said that the "quality of UK honours degrees is the envy of the world".

Universities are already debating the classification of degrees, says Baroness Warwick.

"Institutions are well aware of the issue of the sustainability of international student numbers, particularly in an increasingly competitive environment," she says. There is also a "robust quality assurance system," says Baroness Warwick.


Some of the comments we have been sent on this story:

I am a professor at a well-known strong UK university (the kind of place where you need at least three A's to get in). Our department is being pressurised from above to award more 1st and upper 2nd class degrees---we were told in no uncertain terms that if we were supposed to be a world-class university full of world-class lecturers then how come only (whatever it is) percent are being awarded "good" degrees---we were told that our funding risked being cut if we did not start giving out (what they wanted) percent of first and upper seconds! I remember the stunned silence when our head of department reported this development to us in a staff meeting. Management are basically saying to us "inflate your grades by any means necessary or you can forget about hiring any new staff". Absolutely appalling. And you know what's going to happen in the staff meeting in a week or two, when we decide who gets the 2:1s and who gets the 2:2s? We will bow to their pressure and draw the line artificially below where we usually draw it. Sad but *absolutely true*. Class of 2008 in my department---consider yourselves lucky! We are devaluing our degree and I think it's appalling.
A Professor, UK

I am a professor in a large university in the NW of England. Over the past decade or more I have seen our system of grading and marking erode to the point of farce. In our University we have a highly top-down and aggressive management and any staff standing up to them is likely to be in very deep water indeed. A major goal of our President (ie VC) is to recruit overseas students for the cash, and if we as academics marked to the same standard of a decade ago we would be promptly removed from teaching our courses by our “managers”. Courses that have low average marks at finals are “looked at” and we all know that if we want to keep on teaching the subjects we love to students, we have to play the management game. The gulf between the top and bottom of the 2.1 degrees is staggering, with superb bright students at the top and people who can barely string a sentence together at the bottom. The solution to the whole problem is to do away with the current degree categorization, and go with a grade point average like the USA. Importantly, changes have to be imposed from outside, as the staff in Universities are somewhat cowed into submission by their management.
Anon, NW England

One degree programme in a prestigious university has just awarded 70 per cent of its students a 2.1 degree. What sort of a crazy classification system lumps almost all of its students in a ten-mark band on a 100-mark scale? It's well past time to ditch the traditional degree classification system to put a stop to this nonsense.
A.N. External, Scotland

I am a foreign student currently in first year of my course (computer systems engg.) and I've struggled a lot and paid a hell load of money to get here just because of the reputation. And I would like to clarify here that not all foreign students are bringing the 'level' down, there are a lot who are actually taking it 'higher'. So things even out. But its really disturbing to see that even in universities (which you only go to once in a lifetime) the grades are taken so casually. I do hope that someone steps up and FIXES things soon.
Mohd Rashid, Harrow, United Kingdom

I'm a recently retired university professor with experience of working at four leading universities and external examining at another four. During my career I watched degree grading deteriorate from a slightly archaic but workable and honest system into a misleading farce. Originally there were four grades, all in use: First, 2i, 2ii, Third. In the Second Class the ratio was something like 60% x 2ii, 40% x 2i, while between 5% and 10% of each year cohort received a Third. As the years went by and pressure grew from university management (and indirectly the government) to award ever higher numbers of 'good' degrees, I watched these standards shift gradually but steadily to a point which made nonsense of them. The situation now is that nobody normally ever gets a Third, whilst in the Second Class the ratio has shifted to around 30% x 2ii and 70% x 21. This has come about through pressures placed on examiners and through a myriad of small changes in examining procedures, individually insignificant but cumulatively massive in effect, designed to nudge student marks and gradings ever higher. Students, parents and employers now assume that in effect there are only two grades: 2i (= pass) and 2ii (= fail). Firsts are regarded as a kind of starred 2i. 30 to 40 years ago average students were quite content with a 2ii, now they weep in despair if they get one. Of course nobody currently in authority in universities dare admit in public that the situation is as I describe it above, it's a case of saying the Emperor's New Clothes are just great.
Richard, Leicester

I worked as a visiting lecturer at a Midlands university for four years. During that time a new field chair was appointed to head my department who railroaded through the devaluation of grades, severely curtailed feedback on students' work, diluted the intellectual content of courses and dismantled the department's module structure so as to render the awarding of degrees in specific subjects meaningless. Needless to say he was repeatedly promoted ... Totally disillusioned, I left, not in the least because my hard won PhD was also devalued by such shenanigans. The saddest thing is that a whole generation of students have not only been filched financially but have also been mislead as to their intellectual worth in the process.
Dave, Malvern

As an ex-admissions officer for a university department. I can testify to the pressure of admitting students with poor grades and/or English language skills. The problem is that universities economic models are fatally flawed. They believe that recruiting more international students will eventually help them balance their books. Unfortunately as the global higher education market matures and international students own education systems improve. The number of international students will begin to decline.

This is something we had already begun to observe in my old department, with a slow in growth of international student numbers. Particular from countries such as China. The problem is that UK universities are not fit for the 21st century. They want to be businesses, however, are bogged down in almost feudal like practices.

With departments and services competing against each other. If UK universities are to survive they need to get real and start to reform their structures and practices. Developing sustainable economic models, which reflect the reality of the education market they exist in.
Richard, South-west

I'm an external examiner and always try to make my reports as candid and constructive as possible. However recently I found myself limiting my comments because although critical, they concerned an aberration on an otherwise excellent course, and one the course team had brought my attention to. I wanted to support their plans to fix the issue but worried that the report would reflect badly on them.

But I've seen some very poor examining before - a lot of examiners are old pals of the course team and their visits are simply catch-up exercises. The worst ones, in my experience, are examiners from industry who have no clue about academic standards - I've even known some examiners see their visit as a way to find their next recruits, not only is it cheaper than advertising and interviewing, they get paid in to the bargain! There are also a lot of courses who expect examiners to mark students (and examiners who see it as their right to change individual students' grades). Neither is permitted. The examiner is there to examine the course and its processes, not the students.

No one does it to make money but some universities not only pay a pittance for the extra work (and there can be a lot of it) but expect examiners to pay expenses up front. For me, that's £300 a visit that I won't get back for several months! I've accrued bank charges of hundreds of pounds to fund being an examiner!

There needs to be a) an external appointments system to ensure objectivity b) training for examiners and c) a national standard for payment that properly compensates for time given and rewards good critical and constructive advice. A good examiner is worth their weight in gold, but we pay peanuts - and aside from a few selfless souls we know what peanuts buy you...

I think the BBC could do a really good feature on external examiners - we're a forgotten group!
External, UK

Universities dispose of huge amounts of taxpayers money and student fees, yet their governance is self-selecting and opaque. The funding councils and the QAA set requirements and standards that the universities seem free to ignore. The end result is the administrative convenience of easy choices. Academic freedom is not inconsistent with ensuring universities comply with the duties set upon them.
James, Corwen

I am a Programme Director at a university in London. Whilst I acknowledge some of the concerns and experiences of colleagues above, I have also spent much of this week in exam boards that classify the degrees of our third years. I can assure you that degree classifications are not "arbitrary" and that strict rules and procedures are in place. Rigorous discussion is often involved in decision making and standards are ensured by the presence of the chief external examiner.

In terms of the adequacy of the current classification system, perhaps rather than first, upper second, lower second and third class classifications, we should move to an overall grade point average. After all, why should someone with an average mark of 68% be labelled the same as somone who scraped 60%?
Programme Director, London, London

I have been a University student for two years. I am told that a 2:1 is statistically the most common degree classification. Yet, the differences in the abilities of students, who somehow all end up receiving a 2:1 degree is astonishing.
Anthony Lenanton, Tonbridge

I have worked in a science-based industry for more than 20 years and the shocking decline in the average standard of British graduates is all too apparent to me. The consequence has been that my company now demands a PhD for jobs that 15 to 20 years ago would have been suitable for someone with an HNC or HND. I have interviewed new graduates who were so ignorant of their subject that it was hard to believe they had been to university at all. Increasingly, I and my colleagues are looking to other EU countries for new recruits since at least some of our EU neighbours still regard universities as places of education rather than businesses.
Mel, London

Let's not lose sight of the central question of what degrees might really be for, in the first place? An awful lot of people these days seem to assume that they exist purely to 'round-off one's education'; or to provide graduates with instant status and job opportunities, or parents and educational establishments with some sort of quantifiable 'result' or 'return on investment' that they can boast about down the pub on Sunday, or find reflected in some well-regarded professional league tables. As a mere taxpaying citizen though, I confess I prefer to scrutinise certain degrees, at least, mainly from the consumer's point of view: as providing a (hopefully) reliable indication of a certain level of likely future performance. If I should ever need dramatic brain surgery, for instance, I'd really much prefer to feel that the surgeon concerned had scored high grades in a series of extremely demanding examinations before he or she was allowed anywhere near my skull. (Ditto, needless to say, with airline pilots; accountants; lawyers; and those skippering the scary destructive potential of nuclear submarines). So I do hope that we tax (or fee) paying end-consumers might also be allowed a small voice in this comfortable academic conversation?
Tom, Lewes

I've worked in universities for 15 years. I know that overseas students are being recruited who can barely speak English. This has come about partly because of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). In order to do better on the RAE universities have been forced to employ increasing numbers of expensive 'research active' staff. As most research doesn't pay for itself the only way these staff can be paid is to increase student numbers, and more specifically overseas student numbers as there are no quota restrictions set for them. As for degree grade inflation this has partly come about becuase of newspaper league tables in which the percentages of Firsts and 2.1s are one of the key drivers. A university can improve its league position by increasing the percentage of such degrees. These newspapers might like to consider that the percentage of fails and Thirds is possibly a better quality indicator. Finally there is no robust quality control of UK universities. The QAA has run reviews both at departmental and at institutional levels for many years, however these have been a joke. They don't test whether a department, or university actually delivers quality education.
John, South East England




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