Leaders: A degree of doubt
ONE of the obvious benefits of a body like the Scottish Qualifications Authority is that it renders irrelevant a future employer’s prejudice about whether you went to a “good” or “bad” school.
What matters is what grades you achieved when you sat your Highers, with the SQA ensuring that the standard of exam performance required for a certain grade is the same, regardless of where you received your schooling. Common sense, you might say. But the same clearly does not apply when it comes to university degrees. Our story on the subject today is of interest for two main reasons. First, it reveals the “grade inflation” that is apparent in the degrees handed out by Scottish universities in recent years. And second, it shows the wide disparity in the percentages of first-class and upper-second degrees awarded by individual Scottish universities, with some institutions far more generous in conferring these honours than others.
Both of these issues matter. The issue of grade inflation is a common currency of debate in school education – recently education secretary Michael Gove was criticised for moves to counter its effect in the exam system south of the Border. Here in Scotland, the education authorities responsible for secondary schooling have insisted it is simply an indication of pupils performing better – a claim that occasionally meets with some scepticism among employers who despair at the poor literacy and numeracy skills of the youngsters they recruit. The advantage the school system has over the university system in this regard is that the SQA’s standardised nationwide system makes it easier to analyse results and counter criticism, and to ensure appropriate recognition for a particular grade of work, right across the country. An A in Higher maths carries the same weight, whether it was awarded at a prestigious school or a rundown school with a poorer academic record.
This is plainly not the case when it comes to university degrees. The rate of “grade inflation” differs between different institutions, for example. And it is hard for the individual universities to demonstrate that a high – or low – percentage of first-class degrees is an accurate reflection of the quality of the students’ work when looked at across the country. This leaves employers confused. Is a 2.2 from Glasgow University a better degree than a 2.1 from Aberdeen? Or are all 2.1s, regardless of which university they come from, of equal worth? And is it really the case that 78 per cent of graduates at the University of St Andrews deserve the top degrees, but only 54 per cent of students at Glasgow School of Art?
The university authorities’ answer to these questions is commendable in as far as it goes, but it misses the point. Many Scottish universities are working towards producing a far more rounded account of a student’s university experience than a simple exam grade. This would take into account any activities or responsibilities that reflected leadership skills or other personal qualities, as well as a student’s non-academic hinterland. This is an idea that has some merit. But it cannot and should not be a replacement for an easily understood system of grading that is an accurate reflection of academic ability. It is on this final point that the university system has some way to go before it can claim to offer a credible, empirical and equitable system of classification, on which the wider world can make a dependable judgment.
First note of success
THIS newspaper’s Let the Children Play campaign has notched up its first victory. For the past few weeks, we have been campaigning to scrap tuition fees for Scottish school pupils who are learning to play a musical instrument. We have revealed that some local authorities charge more than £300 a year for this privilege, with the inevitable consequence that poorer children are denied this life-enhancing opportunity, which experts insist can be an excellent aid to discipline and learning. But perhaps the most pernicious policy we have exposed is that some Scottish local authorities effectively charge children to sit SQA exams in music. This practice, which may well turn out to be illegal, is a national scandal and must end.
We therefore congratulate Midlothian Council for having the bravery to change its policy on this, and we also welcome the decision of two more local authorities to review their position in advance of budget negotiations. We hope they follow suit. As for the councils so far refusing to budge or who refused to answer our questions last week, we would urge you to reconsider your position. Your policy undermines the concept of free schooling and discriminates against poorer families. It is also vulnerable to a legal challenge. We are on your case. Now would be a good time for a change of heart.
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Wednesday 22 May 2013
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