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Articles > Money July, 10, 2012

Congratulations on graduating… but your degree classification is meaningless

Aaron Porter
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As the nail biting and butterflies of June subside, July should be a month of celebration as tens of thousands of students graduate from university over the next few weeks. Graduation ceremonies are rightly an unashamed celebration, a chance to congratulate students on their hard work, but also a time to thank staff too. Years of hard work, commitment and support should rightly be recognised.

Photo by Will Folsom

I’ve never been convinced by the argument that too many people are going to university. In fact, the overwhelming weight of evidence suggests the complete opposite! To remain internationally competitive in an increasingly competitive world, the UK needs more graduates, not less. Indeed, since 1997, the UK has actually slipped from 3rd to 14th in the OCED rankings of graduates as a percentage of the adult population. Strangely this doesn’t seem to hit the headlines in the same way as wayward stories about ‘Beckham-ology’ and ‘golf management studies’ do.

So with my cards laid out on the table, I want to argue that the degree classification system is no longer fit for purpose in the 21st century. 50 years ago, when higher education was confined to a narrow elite – an elite in terms of background and birth, not intelligence – it seemed just about acceptable that graduates could be divided up into four main categories. Those with firsts, upper seconds (2:1s), lower seconds (2:2s) and thirds. The total student population was a manageable size, and these categories seemed reasonable sub-sections to reflect the varying degrees of attainment students had demonstrated by the time they graduated. Employers too were able to make an assessment about the threshold they would require from applicants.

However, in an environment where the student population has increased dramatically, and at a time when employers are looking for more detail from applicants, four simple categories just doesn’t cut the mustard any longer. How can it be right that the achievements of three years of study are crudely articulated as a single number? Or in some instances just a play on the name of the retired South African archbishop of Cape Town, if you happen to have got a ‘Desmond’ (Tutu)! Employers themselves appear to be looking for as much information about activities and achievements outside as well as inside the classroom, but also a verified break down of types of assessment, and the ability to work in groups.

If I had my way, the current degree classification system would be scrapped. But the higher education sector doesn’t move that quickly or radically, so it is at least heartening to see that over 50 institutions are now trialling a more sophisticated and detailed alternative to the degree classification system, known as the Higher Education Achievement Report, or a little more snappily, the HEAR. The HEAR is generally accompanying the degree classification system, so not necessarily a replacement, but hopefully students and employers alike will find a short verified report giving more detail to the achievements of a student more helpful when it comes to determining future selection.

The HEAR itself has been about 6 years in the making, originating from a report little known outside of the higher education sector, ‘Measuring and recording student achievement’ chaired by Professor Sir Robert Burgess, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester. He went on to lead work on the development and implementation of the HEAR. The HEAR includes details of a graduates academic achievements, including summaries of modules taken and details of academic prizes, as well as information about extra-curricular activities, voluntary work, and involvement in union and sports societies.

If we can finally see an end to employers making an assessment of who to employ based on a narrow list of universities, or the introduction of a final report which gives a more balanced and fair assessment of achievement rather than a crude number, then we will make an important step forward in ensuring that students leave higher education with more than a certificate and a number. It should hopefully mean our graduation ceremonies have even more to celebrate as the next generation of graduates head off into the next stage of their life.

What do you think?

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Aaron Porter is a freelance journalist, broadcaster and education consultant. He was previously President of the National Union of Students 2010-11 during the high profile tuition fee debate. He tweets at @AaronPorter.

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  1. Good Work Aaron.. A well written article which cuts to the chase..

  2. Christopher Quinn

    Just my opinion, but as someone who used to interview people for specific positions we wlcomed applications from both graduates and those with work experience. It was found though that most graduates who had a 2.2 or 3rd as their classification very rarely got through the first interview stage unless they had some work experience behind them. The graduates who used to interview well had in general had taken a placement in industry during their final year and these were regularly targeted by employers. I can see Sinead’s point below regarding the 60 vs 69 average, as it still classes as a 2:1, as unfortunately this happened to me when I did my BSc Physics and has an average of 68.8% but needed 69.3% for a 1st; at least I was awarded a distinction in my MSc (average 86.2%). The PhD on the other hand is a very different animal.

  3. Brenda Kennedy

    You were right to gain work experience Sinead but please don’t use it as an excuse for sacrificing study time. I worked in full time self employment, raised four children and achieved a 1st on a full time Arts degree. I now intend to sacrifice my job to part time hours and lose income in order to gain work experience in lecturing while I study for PGCE and masters. In my opinion if you don’t apply with a well written CV and sell yourself at the interview then your degree classification is irrelevant because you won’t get the job. So forget the numbers and HEAR and sell yourself in whatever you’re the best at.

  4. Matthew Styles

    It would have been interesting to see a mention of the Grade Point Average (GPA) system being considered by a number of UK institutions. Consultation with students have shown me that students are largely in favour of a system like GPA but are anxious about it being trialled by a small number of institutions and the effect it will have on students.

    My personal opinion is that not only is it the number of UK graduates rising and the difficulty in distinguishing them, but also the lack of globally-universal grading system which leads me to believe a change from the classification system is needed.

    I am in favour of the HEAR to an extent, however the most useful parts of it are simply verified instances of items laid out on a CV. For example, being a Course Rep for the University might be put on a CV; the advantage to HEAR is that it’s listed under a verified experience section.

    Similarly, GPA fails to meet the needs of students and could even lead to significant confusion – the US and the Malaysia GPA scales are different. That being proposed by a number of UK Universities is looking to be different again, which takes away one of the two main benefit – the reduction of ambiguity. It does however address the issue of classification distinction.

    Only employability is really mentioned in the article, let alone professional body admissions, progression to postgraduate study and so forth. If employability is all we’re talking about, then surely it would be far more effective and efficient to ensure that students are well-educated in the art of detailing their personal achievements, academic performance, and extra-curricular activities on CVs, application forms, and at interview.

    In the grand scheme of things, whilst I appreciate the need for change (there really is a need), it’s clear that we don’t have a solid proposal which truly distinguishes graduates’ academic performance alone.

  5. Stu

    I think what you are talking about with HEAR is a well written CV. The number is a slight indication of your potential but I don’t think a formal assessment of your life is the right thing to do. There is too much pressure on doing things around education at the moment without making it a formal process.

    Your grade should be used just to get the employer reading your CV/covering letter and asking you down for an interview. If you did well you can say “oh I got 89%”. A slight separation of firsts might help, but I think if you are a first student you’ll get the interviews, and that’s where you prove yourself.

  6. SG

    Firsts, covering the large range from 70% to 100% should be split into 1:1 – 90 – 100%, 1:2 80 – 90% and 1:3 70 – 80%.

  7. I agree with Aaron’s argument here, that a 2:2 or 2:1 really is just a number. After three years of hard work and dedication to study, it seems unfair that all our effort should be belittled as a number (especially for those of us doing arts courses, where words speak louder than any number could). I think the current system works, up to a point, but agree that the classification system does not take into account personal effort, and can make it seem like those of us who achieved 60 and were awarded a 2:1 are equal to those achieving 69 for the same grade. Perhaps a distinction within a grade boundary could be made? I also think that at the minute, the classification system ignores the merits of the individual, and more could be done to acknowledge achievements; HEAR sounds like a good alternative, although I would need to know about what it considers in more detail. At the moment, I think it is important that employers do look at outside achievements, including interests and work experience when assessing a potential employee. Throughout my degree, I sacrificed valuable study time in order to accrue the necessary work experience in areas of personal interest, and this should be given as much attention as the final mark, when we are constantly being told that both are so important.