'Two tribes' to the wall? Elite set may adopt GPA
US system seen to offer a more continuous scale, say breakaway group. Simon Baker reports
Seven universities are set to accelerate plans to scrap the UK's honours degree-classification system by replacing it with the US grade-point average model.
The group, which includes six Russell Group institutions but not the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, has held a series of informal discussions on introducing GPA.
The US system is viewed as offering a more "continuous scale" that avoids the "cliff edges" between honours classifications.
At least one member of the group - University College London - could move away from first-, second- and third-class honours in just two years.
Although the development may be viewed as running contrary to the plan for the Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear) - the mooted replacement for the current classification system - those involved have stressed that GPA would "complement" the process.
Michael Worton, vice-provost (academic and international) at UCL and chair of the informal working group, told Times Higher Education that the current system was regarded by many as "not fit for purpose".
"We can do better and we should do better for our students," he said.
UCL, one of the institutions furthest advanced in its GPA planning, is consulting staff and hopes to launch a pilot in 2012-13, with a view to the system becoming permanent from autumn 2013.
The other institutions involved - the universities of Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield, Warwick and York plus the London School of Economics - are considering various options and timetables, but all have agreed to work together towards reform.
Professor Worton accepted that the move may spark criticism, but said that there is an urgent need for a public debate about change.
He said the key drivers for reform were the unfairness of honours classifications; the rapid expansion and globalisation of higher education; the growing emphasis on graduate employability; and the need to reconsider teaching, learning and assessment.
"We've got a classification system that essentially divides the world of undergraduates into two tribes - those with a 2:1 and above and those with a 2:2 and below. That's not helpful," he said.
Students missing out on a 2:1 by a few marks were hit "emotionally, in terms of their own self-image and self-respect, often for quite long times", he added.
Incentive to keep working
Professor Worton said that the GPA method would give students more incentive to keep working to influence their final marks and was a "portable" system, given its use - in various forms - all over the world.
David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, said the merit of GPA was that "because it is a continuous scale, you get away from the cliff-edge functions" of the current system.
He argued that it would also help to resist any pressures towards grade inflation, although he added that he was not convinced that such a problem existed now.
Birmingham has yet to agree a timetable, but is considering "double running" the GPA system parallel with honours classifications from 2015-16. Professor Eastwood dismissed any claims that the move amounted to "Americanisation", adding that "those who sneer need to remember that most of the world's leading universities are in the US".
GPA is also used by US liberal-arts colleges, the institutions that take the student experience "most seriously", he said. But he added: "We're developing a model, not importing it. The arguments for doing this are pedagogic, they are about refining assessment, not about conforming to ... any other system."
He also insisted that the GPA plans did not constitute a snub to the Hear and were drawing "logical conclusions" from that system.
Sir Robert Burgess, the University of Leicester vice-chancellor whose landmark report in 2007 recommended the adoption of the Hear, also said that the decision to consider GPA - which he accepted was an "improvement" on the current system - was logical.
It could work in "tandem" with the Hear, which provides extra information about student achievement including extracurricular activity.
However, he also warned there could be confusion if only seven institutions adopted GPA.
"It is not sufficient for just a small group of universities to award degrees in a different way because as soon as they do, employers will raise the question of comparability."
But David Docherty, chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, said he did not envisage such a problem given the sophistication of graduate-recruitment tools. Employers would welcome the "clearer view" GPA scores would give them, he said.
The Hear was a "complicated instrument" that on its own was less useful for employers, he added.
'WE CAN DO BETTER': ALTERNATIVE SYSTEM PROMISES ASSESSMENT RETHINK
A move to the grade-point average model would give universities the opportunity to change the "entire practice" of teaching, learning and assessment, according to the chair of the working group that is considering the change.
Michael Worton (pictured), vice-provost (academic and international) at University College London, said the process would involve changing the "hearts and minds" of academics with regard to how they design courses and examinations.
He said he "profoundly" believed that teaching standards would be improved and institutions "transformed" by the adoption of GPA - even if the seven universities involved eventually opted to take different paths.
"We need to recognise that the student experience has got to be much better.
"We need to be saying: 'We will give you the best possible assessment ... for yourselves and to help you into the world of work.'"
However, he said that he did not believe that the "main function" of examinations was to be "a filtering process for business and industry" - although GPA would give them better information "in a fairly short form".
Sir Robert Burgess, the University of Leicester vice-chancellor who led the review of the honours system, which issued its final report four years ago, said: "We should debate what constitutes assessment, why we assess, how we assess and the system we use to communicate to students, employers and other stakeholders the level of performance they've reached."
Professor Worton, who served on the steering group that produced the final Burgess report, added that one challenge of moving towards GPA would be the question of whether to give different weightings to different courses and years of study.
CLASSIFICATION ERRORS AND IDEAS: A TIMELINE OF REFORM
July 1997: The Dearing report recommends that higher education institutions develop "progress files" to record individual student achievement. It adds that as progress files are adopted nationally, "the present classification system may become increasingly redundant".
September 2002: Research presented at the British Educational Research Association meeting in Exeter shows that degrees of the same class from different institutions are impossible to compare, with different algorithms used to arrive at final classifications.
November 2002: It emerges that Margaret Hodge, the higher education minister, is seeking a review of the classification system, amid concerns about grade inflation.
November 2004: The Burgess Measuring and Recording Student Achievement Scoping Group concludes that the existing classification system has "outlived its usefulness and is no longer fit for purpose".
Meanwhile, a London Metropolitan University study finds that marks that would earn a London School of Economics student a first-class degree would be worth only an upper second at the University of Nottingham.
September 2005: The original Burgess group recommends a three-point scale of pass, fail or distinction, backed by transcripts of achievement.
January 2006: Plans for the three-point scale are rejected after consultation with the sector.
February 2006: A Quality Assurance Agency report shows that assessment practices vary so much between and even within universities that the system is a "results lottery".
January 2007: Figures show that for the first time the proportion of students obtaining either a first-class or upper second-class honours degree has hit 60 per cent.
August 2009: A House of Commons Select Committee says it is "unacceptable" that vice-chancellors could not give a straightforward answer to the question of whether the standard of first-class honours degrees achieved at different universities was comparable.
TO THE POINT: GPA HISTORY AND HOW IT WORKS
Grade-point average has often been held up as a viable alternative to the honours-degree system.
Rather than translating overall performance into a classification such as a 2:1, GPA provides a single numerical value for each student's academic achievement over a period of time.
It is calculated by finding the average of course grades, although sometimes weightings are used to place additional value on advanced modules.
The system is credited to William Farish, an 18th-century professor of natural philosophy at the University of Cambridge.
It was based on a factory grading system used to determine whether goods could be sold and thus whether the workers who made them should be paid.
In 1813, Yale College began keeping a Book of Averages that mentioned the practice of recording the averages of each student's marks and marking on a four-point scale.
Under the GPA system used in the US and Canada, each student achieves a final mark between 0 and 4 expressed to two decimal places.
Other countries use a grading system with different scales. As a result, comparisons of countries using variant GPA systems can be difficult.
This year, a paper titled "Grade point average: what's wrong and what's the alternative?" was published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. Its author, Soh Kay Cheng, said this inconsistency made GPA unviable in a globalised era.