Degree results

There’s been discussion (eg in the Telegraph and the Guardian) about the proposal to get rid of the existing system for classifying degree results as 1st, 2:1, 2:2 and 3rd, and replace it with a “grade point average” (GPA)  scheme or simply a transcript showing performance on each course.

At first sight, there seems to be something to be said for this. A lot of graduate recruiters have a first filter of 2:1 or better – if you fall below that, for whatever reason (even if just by one mark), it can make it much much harder to get a job – so a system without such clear cut-offs has advantages.

The current classification system is also rather less nuanced than once it was, with so high a proportion of students gaining a 1st or 2:1. Back when I did my original degree (cue grumpy old woman), only around 10% of degrees nationally were 1sts, even though the intake to universities was much more restricted than it is now.  The OU’s classification system, for example, allows someone to get a first with only 60 points (= a half of the final year’s work) at first class level (needless to say the rest has to be respectable quality though!). That means there’s quite a gap between the “bare first” and the person who has first class scores on all their modules – it’s a pretty broad classification. A transcript does, of course, allow you to show the details of what you’ve achieved, but do many people actually read them?

The flip side of this, of course, is that it might allow an even more narrow focus on exam performance – in some circumstances, getting the equivalent of a 2:1 might no longer be good enough, and a GPA of “x or above” might be required, as a substitute for looking at the other factors that are surely just as important in assessing a potential employee’s suitability.

The other problem is that the use of an apparently precise number like 3.1 (GPAs go up to 4.0) may give a wholly inappropriate appearance of precision, and undue significance may be attached to someone having 3.1 not 3.0. Marking of essay-based subjects must surely always have a subjective element, whether you are putting a percentage or a descriptor such as “excellent” on the work.  Even in maths and science, whilst the marking may be easier to perfect, the location of the boundary between the top score and the next level down will always have some subjectivity in it, unless you take the even worse approach of setting a fixed percentage boundary no matter how easy or difficult the work set was.   As it stands, if you are, say, a middle 2:1 student, then probably most of your work will be a 2:1, some will creep up to a 1st and the odd bit down to a 2:2 – this may reflect both differences in your performance and in the approach of those marking it. It won’t really matter because you are still ending up with a 2:1 overall. However, if that odd 2:2 piece pulls your GPA down, it does start to matter a lot, and being allocated to the more rigorous (or meaner) tutor becomes a real issue.

There is talk that a GPA system would be better for giving comparability between departments and between universities. Er…no! How can you assess comparability between departments? How can you compare a “very good” history essay with a “very good” set of answers to maths problems? It’s no easier to compare descriptors than marks. It’ll end up being a statistical comparison, and I don’t see how you can better that.

Comparability between universities on the same subject might potentially be a little more attainable, but how do you compare, say, what’s “good” when the piece of work has a number of routine problems to one with more curved- ball questions?  And whilst the external examiners/assessors can (and already do) make sure that universities don’t set their boundaries too low, are they going to stop them setting them higher? It’s the same as with content – for example, an IoP-accredited Physics degree will have to contain certain content, but there’s nothing stopping universities adding extra content, and many do. You may argue that universities wouldn’t want to set them higher; I would disagree on two counts. Firstly, the department might not want on its own account to have too many high class degrees (or high GPAs) – academics may well have views about “maintaining standards” and will also want to use results as a filter for going on to a fourth year of study or postgrad work. Secondly, there will be political pressure – it would not play well for the “elite universities” to have a much higher proportion of top degrees, even though, given the difference in intake in terms of A-level results, you would expect them to do so.

So whilst I can see advantages, I am very nervous about how it would work in practice. And what about the established rhyming slang for degree classes, eh? What would replace Geoff, Attila, Desmond and Douglas if we went over to a GPA system?


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