Britain Flirts With Changing Degree Classifications To US-Style System

Critics of Britain's 200 year-old grading system say that a model that includes classifying undergraduate degrees into five categories from first class to fail is broken — and the UK higher education sector may be turning to a US-influenced replacement.

Attempting to improve the grading system, 21 universities began experimenting with a similar GPA as used in America hoping it would be a better evaluation of student effort and to help combat grade inflation. The grade point average is calculated by adding up the grade points received by the student and dividing it by the total number of assignments that were earned.

Lucy Hodges of The Chronicle of Higher Education (via The New York Times) writes that not everyone in Britain is on board with the new system. Detractors say the attempt is flawed and could cause an "erosion of centuries old methods that undergird higher education" in the country.

 "I think this G.P.A. reform is a bit like giving academics American titles such as assistant, associate, or full professor. It's the Americanization of higher education," said Christopher Hill, head of the politics and international-studies department at the University of Cambridge. "I don't think it will do what people are assuming it will do. I don't think it's likely to make much of a difference."

The current system in Britain is similar to the Latin Honor system in U.S. Universities, awarding degrees based on five distinctions: first class honors, second class, upper level or 2.1, second class or 2.2, third class and pass without honors.

But some say the classification is too broad and that it divides students into two groups — those with a 2.1 and above, and those with a 2.2 and below. Students in the lower group feel they failed, especially when employers tend to seek applicants with a minim mum 2.1. They feel that the GPA will better portray student achievement.

"While we need accurate assessments, the very sharp divide that has developed between the two degree classes is not helpful," said Sir Robert Burgess, vice chancellor of the University of Leicester, who is supervising the G.P.A. test run at the 21 British universities."If the pilot is successful — and I don't see why it should not be — reform will gather momentum, so that by the end of this decade I expect all U.K. universities to have adopted the national G.P.A. model that we are working on," he said.

The GPA-based system would be voluntary and has strong supporters. Minister of state for universities and science David Willetts requested the GPA study, which is being conducted by the Higher Education Academy and includes major universities like the University of Nottingham and University College London.

Some universities like Oxford and Cambridge are opposed to the change, saying that the first class degree is a "social marker of significant achievement" and is held by high profile figures like Prime Minister David Cameron.

Opponents say the reform won't achieve its desired goals. Michael Kelly, head of modern languages at University of South Hampton, says that while one of the main arguments in favor of the GPA is "that it would do away with the ‘cliff edges' between degree classifications and give a smoother, more continuous scale" Kelly says the critics say it "simply introduces more cliff edges".

Students will also weigh in on the issue, as the National Union of Students has a representative overseeing the GPA experiment.

02 4, 2014
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