The Burgess Group, established by the Higher Education sector “to investigate the issues around measuring and recording student achievement”, has recommended a simple pass or fail outcome for degree programmes (PDF) , with the new European-styled Diploma Supplement and the Student Transcript as fuller indicators to potential employers of a graduate’s achievements and capabilities than classified degrees. These recommendations reflect a growing concern about variability and lack of consistency across the sector, A 2.1 in one university does not indicate the same achievements as the same award at another. A 2.1 in one subject is not the same as a 2.1 in another. The Diploma Supplement and the Transcript are seen as providing much more detailed evidence of an individual’s achievements, together with evidence of personal attributes and achievements developed through PDP and other approaches to reflective practice. The recent consultation paper from the Burgess Group states that validity and fairness are important criteria for assessment together with transparency and the need for student achievement to be accurately and fairly recognised regardless of the subject, institution, culture or assessment process.
It goes on to say that it does not doubt the commitment and professionalism of staff in higher education nor that they are busy people. It is also aware that raising concerns about degree classification is open to “exaggeration and misinterpretation by those that seek dramatic headlines” and “can be taken to imply a drop in standards in UK HE” Despite the potential burden of taking forward the issues raised, the Group is convinced that their is evidence that there are too many inconsistencies in the current system.
At the same time, however, most employers will understandably admit to needing a simple selection process to reduce long lists of applicants to a small number who will be interviewed or invited to assessment centres. This becomes increasingly necessary as, with recent rapid growth in participation in Higher Education, there are now far more graduate applicants to be considered. An arbitrary separation into “good honours” degrees and “others” helps to reduce the list – or, perhaps more alarmingly, selection decisions at this level may be based simply on “A”level results. The reputation of university at which an applicant studied and its position in published league tables is also very important. Employers are unlikely to work through large amounts of detailed information in the early sorting process and, even if the Burgess Group recommendations are followed, will be likely to use information in the Student Transcript as a proxy for degree classification. They will continue to sort applications on the basis of “good honours”, “A” levels and university.
Brookes continues to enjoy an enviable reputation as one of the better universities in the UK, and this is confirmed by employers as they choose the universities from which to recruit. Its position in various league tables over a number of years helps convince them of this – as well, of course, as the quality of the Brookes graduates they employ. Our success means, however, that endeavouring to maintain our position in league tables becomes an issue for us. We cannot afford to slip down the tables and off the employer radar.
The measures used to prepare league tables include the “A”level achievements of our students as well as by the number of good honours degrees we award – so reinforcing the value place on these as measures of excellence. Whatever we may think of the selection methods used by employers, the measures used by them are reinforced by the league tables as well. In this context, our desire to maintain our league table position could provide an incentive to favouring recruitment of students with high grades at “A” level, an objective which is certainly obtainable, and to seeing the award of more good honours degrees as a measure of our success. This, though, would run counter to our concern to develop opportunities for people from all different backgrounds to engage in higher education, that higher education should be inclusive rather than exclusive, and that it is the real personal success and achievements of each student from whatever background, the “value added” by Higher Education, that is a true measure of our success.
There are some real dilemmas for all of us to consider as we plan for the future. How do we encourage and celebrate research and also learning and teaching as dual pillars of the university? Can we be selective as regards the students we recruit – but selective to encourage wider participation, inclusion and opportunity? Can we give due consideration to league tables but not make them the tail that waves the dog?
In this issue of BeJLt, there are papers which reflect our concern for practice which effectively supports the student as learner, there are papers which look to the future of our provision, and there are papers which recognise the importance of reputation and external perceptions. In short, this issue provides a very real example of the contradictions Brookes will have to manage as it looks to continuing success in the future.