Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 68

Submission from Professor Robert Burgess, Vice Chancellor, the University of Leicester and Chair of the Burgess Implementation Steering Group



  This submission:

    — Provides a brief outline of the work that the various advisory (Burgess) groups have undertaken in relation to degree classification and recording student achievement;— Highlights the principles that have guided the work;— Indicates the criteria used when considering proposals for change;

    — Comments on the relevant questions, drawing upon the work of the various groups; and,

    — Briefly reports on the current trialling of the Higher Education Achievement Report.


  1.  Submission from Professor Robert Burgess, Vice-Chancellor, the University of Leicester and chair, Burgess Implementation Steering Group. Previous chair of the Measuring and Recording Student Achievement Scoping Group and Steering Group (the Burgess Group).

2.  The various advisory groups established by UniversitiesUK and GuildHE, supported by the funding councils, the Quality Assurance Agency, the Higher Education Academy and other organisations have been considering the issue of degree classification since 2004. The issue which these groups saw as the core focus of their work, to ensure that student achievement is recorded and represented in its broadest sense, has been an issue that many in the sector have considered for a much longer time than the existence of the groups. This has been demonstrated by the way the higher education sector has always thoughtfully and positively engaged with discussions on the topic even if they have not necessarily agreed with our proposals.

  3.  The groups involved in supporting this work have consistently agreed that the UK honours degree is a robust and highly-valued qualification. The UK higher education experience is considered to be of a very high standard. The interest of the groups has been in the ways in which the diverse and complex achievements of honours graduates can be appropriately summarised and represented by a single judgement or number, drawn from a small classificatory scale.

  4.  In summary the work undertaken since 2004 came to the conclusion that, for a number of reasons outlined below, that while the honours degree is of a very high quality and admired worldwide the degree classification system is no longer fit for purpose for a modern, complex and diverse higher education system. The group considered making it more detailed with more possible outcomes but agreed this would be too complex. A shorter, simpler classification scale was consulted upon but it still replicated some of the problems associated with the current system. The group came to the conclusion that the problems with the degree classification were problems associated with the use of a summative judgement.

  5.  The groups recognised that one strength of the existing system was that it was well recognised and a change to a different system would be complicated, costly, take a long time to bed in and given that it would replicate some of the existing problems be of questionable value. Removing a summative judgement itself would be a radical step and there are strong concerns about this not just from institutions but from students and employers as well. The groups preferred approach is to test and trial the Higher Education Achievement Report, with the degree classification system remaining in place, so that the value of this new approach can be demonstrated and the potential for it to replace the degree classification system gains strength.

  6.  In carrying out their work, the various Burgess groups have been guided by an important and valuable set or principles that are outlined in the attached Memoranda.

  7.  Whilst it would not be possible to completely satisfy all of these principles, they served as a very good benchmark for the work of the groups and we commend them to the committee.


Whether the methodologies used by UK HEIs to determine degree classifications and the distribution of degree classes awarded are appropriate, the potential methodologies for the standardization of degree classifications within, and between, HEIs, and the effectiveness of the Quality Assurance Agency in monitoring degree standards.

  8.  The various Burgess groups considered what would be the characteristics of an ideal classification system, or methodology and identified a number of criteria which are also outlined in the attached Memoranda.

9.  We consulted widely on both the principles and criteria and they received considerable positive feedback, with varying degrees of emphasis on particular aspects. Clearly, the criteria cannot all be satisfied and can come into conflict but they provide a comprehensive indicator of the issues that need to be considered when discussing assessment and classification processes and any system-wide change.

10.  Higher Education Institutions outline their methodologies in their assessment/academic regulations which are widely available and often included in student course handbooks. These regulations both inform staff of the procedures operated by the institution and make it clear to students what the expectations are and how the degree classifications are calculated and awarded. They are made widely available to all students and staff.

  11.  These regulations will have been discussed throughout the institution, within departments and faculties, and approved by the Senate, which represents all the academic subjects within an institution. In particular the regulations will show how the institution calculates the final degree classification (the "algorithm") which takes account of differing assessment methods, different grading methods, achievement at different levels and combined subjects/modular structures.

  12.  Institutions set regulations that they consider appropriate to their circumstances and given the extensive involvement of academic staff, they benefit from the experience academic staff have had in other institutions and through the roles they play as external examiners for other institutions.

  13.  The setting of academic regulations are not simply an internal matter given the role of the Quality Assurance Agency the regulations will be informed by the code of practice on assessment and the frameworks for higher education qualifications throughout the UK. Professional, Statutory or Regulatory Bodies (PSRBs) will also play a significant role, especially those that accredit programmes and courses that lead to a professional or vocational qualification. PSRBs are often involved in the design, approval, monitoring and review of courses with some universities having arrangements for joint accreditation and/or validation events.


  14.  From the individual academic/department level some members of staff will have experience of being external examiners in other universities and participating in validation/periodic/annual review panels in other universities so this experience will be brought into departmental discussion and feed into discussions at course boards, examination boards and when the department itself goes through validation/periodic/annual review. They will also respond to the comments and advice of external examiners and there will be the reports of professional and statutory bodies which will be considered at various levels within the university.

15.  Centrally the academic registry and the examinations office (or equivalent) will have a key role in setting, monitoring and implementing the regulations of the institution. These regulations will be informed by practice in other institutions and the QAA Academic Framework. They will also have a key role in terms of collating, considering and analyzing degree results. Often there are additional faculty or school based structures which allow for further consideration of practice and outcomes across a number of departments within a school or faculty.


  16.  Practice within HEIs is informed by the experience of some staff as external examiners and their participation in other institutions quality assurance processes. Staff with specific responsibility for this area in institutions will be members of networks, such as the Academic Registrars Council which are constantly sharing best practice.

17.  Professional and Statutory Bodies play a significant role in terms of standardization of practice across institutions within particular subjects, for example the Engineering Council operates the United Kingdom Standard for Professional Engineering Competence (UK-SPEC) which outlines key learning outcomes that institutions will need to incorporate into their programmes and assessment strategies. The accreditation visit will include consideration of examination papers and marking strategies and will review the internal quality assurance system.

  18.  The processes and frameworks of the Quality Assurance Agency also provide methodologies for standardization across institutions.

  19.  Although the assessment regulations will have been judged appropriate by the university and this judgement will have been informed by the external examining, internal quality assurance and external QAA processes, comparability of degree classifications remains a challenge for the sector both within institutions and between institutions. The groups have seen this challenge primarily from the perspective of a large, diverse, complex and ever-changing higher education system having to channel its outcomes into the "straight-jacket" of the degree classification system rather than from a concern that standards were dropping or being undermined.

  20.  A personal view, but I believe the membership of the current group and past groups would agree, any centrally driven or imposed attempt to have a national marking scheme in higher education would severely undermine the professional status and role of academic staff. More often than not it would call into question the academic judgement of individual academic staff rather than the marking schemes of universities and for there to be central interference in academic judgement would be a disaster.

  21.  Effectiveness of QAA—the audit process is used by universities as an opportunity for self-reflection, the audit reports have long been used by the sector to identify and share good practice. The learning from publications have significantly helped this by bringing together and reflecting on institutional practice in key areas in single publications. The fact that the QAA can highlight the issues of concern, based on audit evidence and provide information on the wider context of good practice in HEIs allows and encourages a mature evidence-based debate.

The advantages and disadvantages of the UK's system of degree classification and the introduction of the Higher Education Academic Record.

  22.  The advantages of the degree classification system include;

    — Well known both at home and abroad;

    — To a large degree still understood and trusted by employers;

    — It is durable;

    — It accommodates differences between subjects;

    — Existing systems are aligned to this;

    — Provides an incentive to students; and,

    — Helps employers to screen large numbers of applications.

  23.  The disadvantages of the degree classification system

    — A summative system, which gives the appearance of "signing-off" a person's education with a simple numerical indicator, is at odds with lifelong learning. It encourages students and employers to focus on one final outcome and perceived "end point", rather than opening them to the concept of a range of different types and levels of achievement, which are each part of an ongoing process of learning that will continue beyond the attainment of their degree;

    — There is a need to do justice to the full range of student experience by allowing a wider recognition of achievement to be made public;

    — The higher education sector has been transformed out of all recognition from that which gave rise to the traditional honours degree classification mechanism, which was devised for a traditional concept of higher education in the 19th Century;

    — The present system cannot capture achievement in some key areas of interest to students and employers and many employers could be missing out on the skills and experience of potential recruits merely because these students had not attained a First/Upper Second:

    — The focus on the top two degree classes wrongly reinforces an impression that a Lower Second or a Third Class degree is not an achievement when, in fact students with such degrees have met the particular standard required for honours degree level, graduate qualifications:

    — There is a fixation on achieving a number that is considered "good" to the detriment of other information; and,

    — Institutional methods for calculating the degree classification could be clearer in order to help students' understanding of what they are being awarded and what is being recognised by the institution.

  24.  The possible advantages of the Higher Education Achievement Report

    — Builds on existing information provided by institutions;

    — Provides the opportunity to highlight a wider range of student achievements (eg employment skills, work experience, volunteering, representing or working for the students' union—subject to validation by the HEI);

    — May provide a more effective focus for information given that it combines and develops the existing transcript and the European Diploma Supplement

  25.  The possible disadvantages of the Higher Education Achievement Report

    — May provide too much information for employers (although work is begin undertaken to ensure that this is not the case);

    — May lead to students and others being able to "reinvent" the degree classification from the more detailed information.

  26.  The current model of the Higher Education Achievement Report is available from the final report of the Measuring and Record Student Achievement Steering Group (the "Burgess Group")—

  27.  The HEAR, with support from the funding councils across the UK, is being trialled by eighteen institutions:

    University of Leicester; Goldsmiths, University of London; University of St Andrews; University of Manchester; Newcastle University; University College London; University of Aberystwyth; University of Northumbria; University of Wales Institute, Cardiff; University of Derby; University of Northampton; University of Gloucestershire; University of Greenwich; Keele University; University of Ulster; University for the Creative Arts; York St John University; and Newman University College.

  28.  The trialling will involve two distinct phases, the first will trial the HEAR with data relating to students who have already graduated across a limited range of subjects. The second phase will involve "live trials with existing students and will be starting in the early Spring of 2009.

The actions that universities, Government and others have taken, or should take, to maintain confidence in the value of degrees awarded by universities in the UK.

  29.  The Burgess groups have consistently stated that the UK honours degree is a robust and highly valued qualification and the student experience is consistently rated, by students, as high quality. The groups, however, have still expended significant effort to consider ways in which the degree classification system can be improved, we have been impressed by the willingness of the vast majority of institutions to consider our proposals and engage in constructive debate, demonstrating the seriousness with which the sector considers degree classification.

30.  The key conclusion that the Steering Group drew from its work is outlined in the attached Memoranda which was a recognition that any change would involve significant risks and any changes should be thoroughly tested before implementation was considered.

  31.  The external examiner system in many cases does provide a robust and challenging enhancement mechanism that promotes the sharing and understanding of good practice. Whilst some of the current criticisms are valid in some cases these should not necessarily lead to the scrapping of the entire system.

  32.  We are working with the Higher Education Academy to bring together practitioners across the sector to share and develop good practice in assessment, following the express wish for this by those colleagues from the sector who have engaged with our debate. This adds to existing good practice developed and shared by existing academic and professional networks and such bodies as the subject centres managed by the Higher Education Academy.


  Principles underpinning the work of the Measuring and Recording Student Achievement Steering Group:

    — to ensure that the interests of students are a primary concern of all aspects of the Group's work;

    — to respect institutional autonomy and academic professionalism;

    — to ensure that proposals are, as far as possible, "owned" by the sector via effective communication and consultation;

    — to propose change which has general support, even if a significant minority of institutions are opposed to it;

    — not to shy away from suggesting radical change if this is the consensus of the Group;

    — to ensure clarity about the problems we are trying to address/opportunities we are trying to exploit or create;

    — to ensure that proposals are, as far as possible, evidence-based through reviewing previous work as well as commissioning further research and highlighting examples of good practice;

    — at all times to be concerned about the possible burden of recommendations on institutions and staff;

    — proposals should, where possible, go with the grain of existing developments; and.

    — proposals must be seen to be useful by the sector and contain practical examples to show they are workable.

  (Beyond the honours degree classification—The Burgess Group final report, UniversitiesUK, October 2007, pages 11-12)

  Key criteria "that would characterise an ideal classification system and against which and new approach or system should be considered":

    — acceptability: should be acceptable to all stakeholders;

    — administrative efficiency: the process should be as efficient as possible and not increase the administrative burden on staff;

    — equity/fairness: similar levels of performance should be recorded in a similar way;

    — information: should provide appropriate information to meet a range of different needs;

    — motivation: should encourage learners to achieve their full potential;

    — reliability/consistency: should produce reliable and consistent results regardless of time, subject or institution;

    — simplicity: should be as simple as possible for stakeholders, particularly external stakeholders, to understand;

    — transparency: the record of how the learner's achievement is arrived at should be clear and transparent to all stakeholders;

    — validity: should be robust and credible in academic terms; and,

    — verification: should be verifiable.

  (Beyond the honours degree classification—The Burgess Group final report, UniversitiesUK, October 2007, pages 17-18)


  "Our deliberations have shown, however, that both conceptually and practically, establishing a replacement system for the current honours degree classification is fraught with critical dangers that would need to be fully addressed before such a radical change was made. Furthermore, consensus among wider stakeholder groups about a replacement approach has been difficult to achieve. We acknowledge that, although our work has stimulated considerable interest and thoughtful and reflective responses, reactions from stakeholders have been mixed and some parts of the sector remain largely unconvinced of the need for radical change. With all of this in mind, we have tempered our proposals by recommending a stage of detailed exploration, development and testing to be carried out in parallel with, and complementary to, the continuation of the existing honours degree classification system at a pace which we trust the sector will find reasonable."

(Beyond the honours degree classification—The Burgess Group final report, UniversitiesUK, October 2007, paragraph 55, page 33)

January 2009

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