Going to GPA?
Seven universities are set to accelerate plans to scrap the UK's honours degree-classification system by replacing it with the US grade-point average model.
The group, which includes six Russell Group institutions but not the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, has held a series of informal discussions on introducing GPA.
The US system is viewed as offering a more "continuous scale" that avoids the "cliff edges" between honours classifications.
At least one member of the group - University College London - could move away from first-, second- and third-class honours in just two years.
Although the development may be viewed as running contrary to the plan for the Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear) - the mooted replacement for the current classification system - those involved have stressed that GPA would "complement" the process.
Michael Worton, vice-provost (academic and international) at UCL and chair of the informal working group, told Times Higher Education that the current system was regarded by many as "not fit for purpose".
"We can do better and we should do better for our students," he said.
UCL, one of the institutions furthest advanced in its GPA planning, is consulting staff and hopes to launch a pilot in 2012-13, with a view to the system becoming permanent from autumn 2013.
The other institutions involved - the universities of Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield, Warwick and York plus the London School of Economics - are considering various options and timetables, but all have agreed to work together towards reform.
Professor Worton accepted that the move may spark criticism, but said that there is an urgent need for a public debate about change.
He said the key drivers for reform were the unfairness of honours classifications; the rapid expansion and globalisation of higher education; the growing emphasis on graduate employability; and the need to reconsider teaching, learning and assessment.
"We've got a classification system that essentially divides the world of undergraduates into two tribes - those with a 2:1 and above and those with a 2:2 and below. That's not helpful," he said.
Students missing out on a 2:1 by a few marks were hit "emotionally, in terms of their own self-image and self-respect, often for quite long times", he added.
Incentive to keep working
Professor Worton said that the GPA method would give students more incentive to keep working to influence their final marks and was a "portable" system, given its use - in various forms - all over the world.
David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, said the merit of GPA was that "because it is a continuous scale, you get away from the cliff-edge functions" of the current system.
He argued that it would also help to resist any pressures towards grade inflation, although he added that he was not convinced that such a problem existed now.
Birmingham has yet to agree a timetable, but is considering "double running" the GPA system parallel with honours classifications from 2015-16. Professor Eastwood dismissed any claims that the move amounted to "Americanisation", adding that "those who sneer need to remember that most of the world's leading universities are in the US".
GPA is also used by US liberal-arts colleges, the institutions that take the student experience "most seriously", he said. But he added: "We're developing a model, not importing it. The arguments for doing this are pedagogic, they are about refining assessment, not about conforming to...any other system."
He also insisted that the GPA plans did not constitute a snub to the Hear and were drawing "logical conclusions" from that system.
Sir Robert Burgess, the University of Leicester vice-chancellor whose landmark report in 2007 recommended the adoption of the Hear, also said that the decision to consider GPA - which he accepted was an "improvement" on the current system - was logical.
It could work in "tandem" with the Hear, which provides extra information about student achievement including extracurricular activity.
However, he also warned there could be confusion if only seven institutions adopted GPA.
"It is not sufficient for just a small group of universities to award degrees in a different way because as soon as they do, employers will raise the question of comparability."
But David Docherty, chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, said he did not envisage such a problem given the sophistication of graduate-recruitment tools. Employers would welcome the "clearer view" GPA scores would give them, he said.
The Hear was a "complicated instrument" that on its own was less useful for employers, he added.
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