Understanding degree algorithms

Universities UK, together with GuildHE, has published a report that explores the configuration of degree algorithms – the processes or set of rules that institutions follow to determine a student’s final degree classification. The report aims to help the sector improve transparency and accountability of practice around degree algorithms.

The work was undertaken because of concerns that degree algorithms were being systematically designed to inflate the proportion of ‘good honours’ degrees awarded by an institution. This report found limited evidence to suggest that this was the case but did highlight the need to improve transparency to maintain confidence and trust in practice. Furthermore, although changes to degree algorithms can and do have a material impact on the profile of classifications awarded by institutions, they are only one of several contributing factors.

Bounded diversity

The report considers the design of degree algorithms systematically, from the weighting of programme years through to module level rules. This report reinforces the fact that no single approach is right for all universities and their students. Equally, although there is variation in practice between institutions, their degree algorithms follow similar rules. Where rules are effectively designed, they mirror the ethos, values and teaching models and practice of the education provider.

The report also identifies practice that might undermine confidence in academic standards under certain circumstances. It includes recommendations to practitioners on the use of multiple award algorithms, discounting, compensation and condonement. To help higher education institutions make decisions, the report suggests that guidance on design principles should be included as part of the supplementary guidance of the Quality Code.

The Grade Point Average

The Grade Point Average (GPA) is held by some to be a fix for the weaknesses of the honours degree classification. However, over 70% of higher education providers have no plans to introduce a GPA. The absence of a single, sector-agreed GPA in the UK, or internationally, means that scores are unlikely to be comparable without conversion – meaning that the GPA not only compounds existing problems but brings in new ones too. Furthermore, where this has been introduced it has typically been used in parallel to the traditional honours degree classification, as this remains the main point of reference for students and, crucially, employers.

Where next?

In the 2015-16 academic year, 22.8% of all graduates from UK universities received a first-class honours degree. In a criteria-based system, this is not in itself a problem – theoretically it is possible, though very unlikely, that all graduates could achieve a first if they meet the criteria. However, the long-term increase in the proportion of ‘good honours’ awarded impacts on political and public confidence in sector standards. It also means that there are limited mechanisms that allow differentiation between graduates.

Universities UK, with GuildHE, will continue to work with the UK Standing Committee on Quality Assessment, QAA and other sector partners to address these challenges. This includes exploring further how the sector defines degree classification boundaries; evaluating the causes of the increasing proportion of good degrees awards; and by reviewing the respective roles of different sector and institutional tools and practices for managing academic standards.

The design of degree algorithms is just one part of this picture. What’s needed now is a broader view – one that considers every aspect of practice

3 thoughts on “Understanding degree algorithms”

  1. Justin says:

    The debate around the use of GPA in higher education reminds me of this classic Randall comic on the proliferation of standards https://xkcd.com/927/

    Some of the institutions I’ve worked in had 70+ grading scales as highlighted by the electronic marking and submission system. Just changing with your measuring in feet and inches or metres does not solve the problem.

  2. jonurwin says:

    Sadly the lack of transparency regarding degree classification has been a problem for some time. In the 80’s the Dean of Students at UCL told me that ‘racks and chains’ wouldn’t make him divulge the reasons my degree classification. No wonder public confidence in HE is falling.

  3. Leo Stoch says:

    Degree Class related to how much your willing to pay seems fairer than most of the dark arts of calculation that take place.

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