Tuesday, July 06, 2010

2:1 degree classifications are "in" ... but should they go?

. . . at least with employers. Details from the BBC are here.

In the UK, there are several different degree distinctions. Very roughly speaking (and there are inevitable differences between institutions) they are:

1st class honours (e.g., the best you can get)

2:1 (or 2nd class honours, upper division)

2:2 (or 2nd class honours, lower division)

3rd class honours (e.g., passed all classes or nearly all)

Pass degree (e.g., did not pass all classes).

I propose scrapping degree classifications for several reasons:

1. The wide variability of students within a degree classification. Thus, a student who just misses out on a higher degree classification will have a very different profile of marks from a student who just manages to be awarded a degree classification. Plus, many institutions permit the use of some discretion, perhaps because of personal mitigating circumstances or high achievement in a particular module/course, to award the higher degree classification if just short of it and numerically on a borderline. It is then not unknown for those with an average of 58 or 59 to receive a 2:1 degree (range 60-69%) and thus have the same degree class as someone on a 68%.

2. Make students strive to be the best they can rather than simply meet the 2:1 criteria. Given the importance of the 2:1 and the great difficulty of earning a 1st, many students seem happy enough to be comfortably within the 2:1 range. After all, why work extra hard for mid-range 2:1 marks when, well, it's all a 2:1 any way? (Yes, critics: as a reference, I would regularly note how some students are particularly strong 2:1 students...but still I fear some students may underachieve.)

One solution is something like a grade point average as in the US. I think something like this should be introduced or perhaps more degree classification bands. Either solution would encourage students capable of mid-range or high 2:1 work to go the extra mile as it would be reflected -- not merely on a transcript -- but on their degree class. Plus, it would best distinguish the better students within the current (and too broad) range.

Will any of this happen? I doubt it.

One final reflection. The perceived need of a 2:1 in the above story highlights a further problem: it suggests there is something problematic about a 2:2. This drives me nuts. There are some with a 2:2 I'd choose any day over some with a 1st. Moreover, one of my favourite philosophers all time, Thomas Hill Green, earned a 2:2 at Balliol, College . . . and then hired to lecture. We need a new degree system to better capture where our students are at the end of their studies. Our times are very different from Green's.


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