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Do degree grades need a rethink?

6th July 2012

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Degree classifications are being held under scrutiny as new research shows that as many as three quarters of graduate employers may be snubbing those who recieve a 2:2.

University figureheads are now calling for various reforms in a bid to keep the graduate market afloat.

Calls, lead by University of Leicester Vice-Chancellor and sociologist Professor Robert Burgess, have been made to alter the grading system in higher education. The proposals will be heard in the wake of new research suggesting that as many as 76% of employers are turned off by a sub 2:1 degree classification, even before interview.

In 2007, an independent study spearheaded by Burgess suggested a performance summary, the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), which could supplement a CV with precise modular marks and extracurricular activities “to match applicant's skills with the job for which they are applying." While Burgess’ ideas are fair in principle, they only go some way towards addressing the issue.             

What Mr Burgess arguably neglects is that, rightly or wrongly, employment is a buyer’s market. Professor Mike Ewing of UCL warns us that "It's a three-point system: firsts, 2:1s, and everything else", suggesting a States-style grade point average as a viable alternative. However much we may disagree with the justice, or lack thereof, in this elitism we need to address that this is a culture fostered by the employer themselves.

The 2:1 cut-off is used by potential recruiters to save time on the seemingly reasonable basis that you cannot interview everybody. Would a grade point average change things so drastically? In most British universities, a 2:1 is demarked by a score of at least 60% and it does not take an economist to deduce that 60% of a perfect 4.0 GPA is 2.4.  

It is difficult to see why replacing one arbitrary figure with another is a step towards students showcasing “the full range of their achievements and abilities”. If anything, it will only further serve to increase inequality and further devalue the British degree. After all, it cannot be denied that under the current employment system every candidate who has managed to achieve a 2:1 or higher, no mean feat, is given a fair chance.

In the American system, what is to stop a recruiter arbitrarily selecting the five top-scoring  GPA values their candidates offer and throwing everybody else to the wolves? The sub 2:1s are just as apparently unemployable as ever (assuming Burgess’ statistics are to be believed) and those who would have achieved a better degree, and gone on to prove themselves at interview, are lumped with the same handicap.

Furthermore, on the basis that universities select their intake and are not constrained by a national syllabus, we can assume that the difficulty of a university course is more or less proportionate to the talent of its students. Therefore, if you cannot achieve a 2:1 on the basis of ability times hard work then you should not have won a place at university. This is the fault of neither the student nor the potential recruiter but the university itself.  As callous as this kind of thinking might seem, everybody cannot be a winner and this awakening begins on a-level results day. To pollute higher education with the kind of ‘everybody matters, nobody fails’ illusory nonsense found throughout schools is an insult to everybody investing a mortgage deposit and then some in a system founded and sustained on the tenets of meritocracy.

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