Have degree classifications lost their usefulness?
Some years ago I was an external examiner at another university. At the examiners’ meeting for the programmes I was reviewing, I noticed (and commented upon) the extraordinarily narrow range in which results were being recorded. Nearly three-quarters of the students were being awarded a mark between 56 and 63 (out of 100), which suggested that the overwhelming majority of the students were of almost equal ability. But actually, this was not so, and the meeting included fierce debates and disagreements about whether students should come above or below the dividing line of 60 per cent (where a 2.1 begins), with the suggestion being that there was a major difference in terms of intellectual ability and analytical achievement between 58 and 60. But then again, whether a student had reached 60 initially was determined not by a careful assessment of their intellectual performance, but purely by mathematics: the result of averaging out the overall marks recorded, first within papers and then between papers.
This seemed to me to be a bizarre way of recording the results, and a less than robust method of sending the students on their way with a certificate that, to most (and employers in particular), seemed to be an objective and considered statement of their ability, but which in reality was something rather short of that. I said as much.
In fact, in pretty well every university in which I have been involved in examining, internally or externally, similar doubts presented themselves. I should emphasise straight away that every academic I have known takes examining and grading really seriously, and all are aware of the impact their assessment can make. But as a profession we have had to tread uneasily in a system that suggests we have an objective and exact way of measuring performance but also knows well enough that almost everything we decide, at least on the borderlines, is highly arguable.
So should we abandon the whole thing? That’s what has been suggested in an article in the Guardian by Professor Nigel Seaton of the University of Surrey. He points out how the numbers game in exam marking has produced all sorts of distortions that are applied by examiners (largely so as not to damage students in their careers), and argues that it would make much more sense to abandon the marks and grades and instead provide students with a proper transcript that contains a reasoned assessment of their abilities and performance.
Doing this would have the added benefit of removing the charge of grade inflation; if there are no grades, they cannot be inflated. It seems to me that the time is right for this reform.