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.
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.