A good old-fashioned 2.1 is better than a Higher Education Achievement Record
University examiners are an extremely conscientious crowd, and in my experience, degree marking is as fair as it could be, given human frailty (and far better that than a computer). All the same, I’ve often thought that we might be better off without the fixed degree class boundaries of first, 2.1 etc. As with all these linear classifications, it’s hard to feel entirely happy about lumping together the person who just missed a first with the one who just scraped a 2.1, and so on. So I’ve always had a certain sympathy with the idea of introducing a more nuanced record of a university degree.
Until I saw what was being piloted as the ‘Higher Education Achievement Record’ (Hear, for short -- of course), trumpeted in several papers this week (and deriving from last year’s Burgess report). It is apparently being test run in several UK universities right now.
Reading about it, I was sent rushing back into the arms of the old conventional nineteenth-century system of ‘classes’, for all their faults. ‘Hear” has been developed by the kind of people who refer to what I call ‘universities’ as ‘the sector’ (that is, I guess, ‘HE sector). Its well-meaning, market-oriented approach to grading represents another nail in the coffin of academic and intellectual values in the universities.
Why do they want to change?
Well one reason, according to Bob Burgess in the Guardian (referring, proprietorially to the work of ‘my committee’), is that employers want more information than just a simple degree class (or projected one). Fine, but isn’t that what references are for? I think of it as part of my job to write references for my students, written specially for the particular post they have in mind. The best way of ensuring potential employers (‘stakeholders’ in Burgess-speak) get useful input from me is simple. First make sure the references I write are confidential; second make sure that employers take them up before short-listing the candidates not after. There is no record of achievement that can be as helpful as two conscientious references.
Another is the idea that the final degree class doesn’t reflect the strengths and weaknesses shown by a student throughout the course. Thank heavens it doesn’t , I think. I am privileged to teach some of the very brightest students in the UK. I want them to develop their potential in all kinds of ways – so that, in whatever walk of life, they can go on to be stunning citizens (cliché but true). That often means taking apart their preconceptions. It means watching them take intellectual risks, make intellectual mistakes, even do badly before they do really well. The last think I want is every course they have done listed and graded. That’s a recipe for the US climate, where the students are knocking on your door complaining if you don’t give them an A. For there every mark counts. Some of my best student in Cambridge have got deltas on the way to alphas, and have learnt in the process about how not to be yes-women, when and how to take risks. Isn’t that what UK employers need?
The worst bit of this is the spectre of the extra-curricular activities that may get included on the report. The very last thing we need is every student rushing off to be president of a society to get it on their transcript. For a start, who is to say whether they have been a GOOD president or not? I’ve been through enough UCAS interviews (and yes, interviews ARE useful) where I’ve said to a potential student: “Oh I see you’re president of your school Tibetan society, what does that involve?”. “Well, we haven’t actually met yet,” comes the answer. But the more important point is that students learn to become good citizens (they learn to grow up, in other words) in many different ways. Some do it by beavering around running societies; others do it by lying on their beds for long hours listening to Bob Dylan and thinking. Noone, believe me, can predict which has the better outcome. But I do know that among the best contributors to the twenty-first century are some on-the-bed, Bob Dylan listeners.
We don’t need Hears, sectors, or Burgess reports. We need university teachers with the space to get to know their students and to write for them honestly, supportively and appropriately, whatever their degree result.