Scottish universities under fire for degree ‘inflation’

Picture: Neil Hanna
Picture: Neil Hanna
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RECORD numbers of students are graduating from Scotland’s universities with first or upper class degrees, prompting calls for the 200-year-old classification system to be scrapped.

Figures obtained by Scotland on Sunday show that 70 per cent of students leave university with a first or a 2:1. That compares to 64 per cent a decade ago and 56 per cent in 1994, the earliest year for which comparable figures are available. The proportion of students gaining a first has risen from 11 per cent to 18 per cent in the past ten years.

The figures support claims that university degrees are being devalued by the same sort of “grade inflation” which has seen school exams results improve year on year.

A number of universities have now implemented a new school-style report card, the Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear), which many in the sector believe could eventually replace the degree classification system.

The figures from the Higher Education Statistics Authority show that last year 70 per cent – 15,885 students – graduated from Scottish institutions with either a first or 2.1, compared with 64 per cent – 11,655 – in 2001. At Edinburgh and St Andrews, two of the country’s leading universities, more than 80 per cent of those graduating did so with a first or upper second.

Figures from last year also highlighted a significant discrepancy between universities on the numbers of firsts and 2:1s awarded – 84 per cent of students at Edinburgh University graduate with a first or 2:1, compared with 48 per cent at the University of the West of Scotland.

Pressure to change the system has come from employers who complain that it is increasingly difficult to judge candidates based on academic achievement. It is also argued that first class or 2:1 degrees from different institutions are not equal, with those from prestigious universities being held in greater esteem than those from former colleges.

Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, whose members include leading firms such as Royal Bank of Scotland and Standard Life, said employers are being forced to turn to online testing and psychological assessments as a way of separating the “wheat from the chaff”, with the degree classification system no longer “fit for purpose”.

He said: “There is a growing recognition that within the recruitment process, the degree classification is a blunt instrument and as a way of differentiating between people, it is becoming less meaningful.

“You also can’t measure one 2.1 against another and that’s a challenge for employers. I’m a fan of the Hear. It’s still being developed, but it has potential to give a much richer picture of what a student has done.”

More than half of UK universities, including Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews, have introduced the Hear, which offers a detailed record of achievement – including details of volunteering work, prizes won and membership of sporting clubs – alongside the grades they were awarded.

Professor Nigel Seaton, principal of Abertay University in Dundee, said. “The degree classification system misses a lot of the richness of what a student does at university. The other difficultly is that small differences that mean a student ends up with a 2.2 rather than a 2.1 can have quite an impact on job opportunities.

“It’s difficult for an individual university to address the question [of whether degree classifications should be scrapped] – it has to be a move made across the whole sector. However, I would like to see us return to the issue once the Hear has become embedded.”

Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, disagrees. “My view is that the degree classification system is so well known as a currency that it would be difficult to base a judgement on anything else,” he said. “We do have to look at the impact of grade inflation and what’s causing it, but I can’t see us moving to a situation where we compare students differently. Thirty years ago if you had a degree, you had a job. Now there is much more competition between students for jobs and they work harder and are much more directed towards results than before.”

Last year, University College London became the first UK university to consider dropping the 200-year-old honours system, replacing it with an American-style “grade point average”. UCL said it was investigating the change to tackle “award inflation” – almost two-thirds of its students gained a first or upper-second class degree in 2010. A number of other institutions across the UK are now considering the US system, which is viewed as offering a more “continuous scale” and would be run alongside school-style report cards.

Graeme Kirkpatrick, vice president (education) of the National Union of Students in Scotland, said: “It’s important that graduates can let employers know about ... the wider range of activities that made up their student experience. At the same time, the fact that not all students have the opportunity to take part in activities outside the classroom must be recognised. Many students must work part-time jobs. Part-time and mature students must often balance family responsibilities with their studies.

“There is no doubt that students are working harder to succeed. We must make sure that this is recognised by employers, but also that students from all backgrounds have the opportunity to develop the skills outside the classroom employers are looking for.”