Despite global interdependencies and initiatives towards globalisation and regionalisation of higher education, there are still a number of barriers to mutual recognition of higher education degrees and qualifications.
Although regional and national quality assurance and qualifications frameworks have been developed and even implemented, challenges brought about by different grading systems across national and regional higher education systems – and even within the same university – need to be investigated and rationalised.
How can we assess and compare the quality of learning in universities with different grading systems that are not benchmarked by similar learning outcomes? Furthermore, some universities use a bell curve to assess learning based on a student cohort and not based on a benchmarked level of learning as a whole.
Although a global higher education market is already with us, conversations on matters of higher education equivalence, quality assurance and mutual recognition are still ongoing, especially with increased cross-border education and the advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs).
In spite of Europe’s advanced higher education regionalism and its various harmonisation initiatives – for example, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, ECTS; regional quality assurance and qualifications frameworks; and the Diploma Supplement – there are still gaps in establishing equivalence in the quality of higher education and even mutual recognition within the European Higher Education Area. Challenges to ECTS equivalence can be seen by comparing the Spanish and Danish grading systems.
In Spain, students can re-take exams, even if they pass, while Denmark only allows re-examinations if students fail. Furthermore, Spanish students can take an exam twice a year for up to six years, while one can only re-take an exam once within a six-month period in Denmark.
Also, European nation states’ understanding and implementation of the diploma supplement varies significantly, undermining its usefulness as a transparency tool in higher education.
Despite efforts to harmonise the required skills and competencies across various higher education qualifications, transparency and harmonisation of grading systems based on desired levels of learning need to be undertaken, and should not be based on the learning done within a particular student cohort, which the Diploma Supplement can show.
If European higher education faces challenges related to equivalence despite its advanced stage of higher education regionalism, what is the situation for other regional higher education systems? Does it make sense to establish various organisations and frameworks to assess learning and graduate students’ skills, competencies and knowledge without first establishing a proper system of grading?
Or do we simply accept universities’ given grades without understanding how these came about and their relevance to the learning process? This is tantamount to accepting national currencies without knowing their underlying value within the national context (what they can buy) and their relative value within the global monetary system (their exchange rate).
The ongoing globalisation and regionalisation of higher education requires fully understanding what higher education certificates, diplomas and degrees actually mean in terms of learning outcomes and their relevance and value to individual students and society.
Similarly, the grades granted by higher education institutions need to be placed within predefined – national, regional and global – standards, harmonised to gain a sense of equivalence and based on fixed key learning outcomes rather than the relative learning outcomes of a particular student cohort.
This should help control the problem of grade inflation and restore the value of a higher education qualification, especially in an era of massification and increasing privatisation of higher education. To understand any complex system, it is necessary to understand its parts and how it works within the system.
Grades are not only the result of a particular learning assessment, but also a criterion used to measure learning and award higher education qualifications. They should be measured and awarded based on absolute (not relative) learning outcomes, given their importance in the quality assurance process in higher education.
For this reason, we need a large-scale collaborative study of grading systems – based on learning outcomes – to increase transparency and provide a conversion tool that leads to equivalence in contemporary higher education systems.
This should make for a better understanding of national grading systems and standards, help to develop acceptable global practice and provide the necessary confidence and acceptance of national higher education qualifications, which will in turn lead to mutual recognition of higher education qualifications across national, regional and hopefully global levels.
Lastly, transparency and accountability in national higher education systems might lead to higher quality, responsible quality assurance and increased student and industry confidence in the value of higher education qualifications.
* Roger Y Chao Jr is a PhD candidate in Asian and international studies at City University of Hong Kong, and vice-president of the Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong. His research mostly focuses on regionalism, higher education and internationalisation of higher education.
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