UK: Two centuries of honours degrees to disappear

Britain’s 200-year-old system of awarding honours degrees as firsts, upper and lower seconds, and thirds will be superseded by a ‘Higher Education Achievement Report’, or Hear, by 2011.

Recommendations in a report by a group of vice-chancellors, led by Professor Bob Burgess of Leicester University, call for the honours degree classification system to be replaced by a new method of recording students’ achievements.Burgess said the report, Beyond the honours degree classification, presents a strong case for change. “The UK honours degree is a robust and highly-valued qualification but the classification system needs updating,” he said. “Graduates deserve more than simply a single number to sum up their academic work when they leave university.”

His steering group fought shy of an outright abolition of the old system after strong opposition from some institutions.

The two-page Hear will give details of a student’s marks, will note non-academic achievements and incorporate the European Diploma Supplement being introduced in all European countries that signed the Bologna pact on higher education. The latter aims to create some consistency in assessments and degree standards across member states.

Britain’s measuring and recording student achievement steering group, set up three years ago amid concerns about grade inflation, issued interim reports which declared the current system was “not fit for purpose”.

The higher education watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency, claimed earlier this year that employers found the classifications unreliable because some universities gave more top grades than others – with some 60% of students now getting a first or a 2.1.

Research by Lancaster University surprisingly found that the Russell Group of 20 elite research-led institutions, including Oxbridge and the London School of Economics, was to blame for some of the rise in firsts and upper seconds.

Despite speculation that the Burgess report would recommend abolishing the system, it proposes a four-year development and testing phase for the Hear to run alongside the existing system. The Hear will have core content common to all institutions, but universities can add other information as they see fit.

Wes Streeting, National Union of Students vice-president and a member of the steering group, said he was disappointed the pace of change had been frustrated by some institutions that failed to grasp the need for reform.

Professor Rick Trainor, president of Universities UK, which jointly commissioned the report with the Guild of Higher Education, said the university sector had changed beyond all recognition from that which had produced the traditional honours system.

“I urge the sector to take on this challenge to develop a system that meets the demands of the 21st century,” Trainor said.

Full Burgess report available on the Universities UK site

[However, in a commentary The Independent argues that vice-chancellors took years to produce a report that essentially leaves a flawed degree classification system as is because they were unable to agree.]
Full report on The Independent site