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Another false dawn for Grade Point Averages?

The Green Paper and White Paper differ markedly on their enthusiasm for GPA. Martin Hewitt wonders if there might be alternatives to a complete overhaul of degree classification.
This article is more than 8 years old

Martin is Dean of Music, Humanities and Media and Professor of History at the University of Huddersfield.

In the flurry of attention to the ways in which the White Paper has modified the shape of government policy, one potentially significant change has largely gone unnoticed: the position of proposals for a Grade Point Average system.

The 2015 Green Paper was effusive about GPA. The government claimed that a new marking system would give more detailed information about course content, a more ‘granular’ account of student achievement, remove the ‘sharpness of the cliff edge effect around the 2:1 and 2:2 border’, and encourage consistent effort from students. It followed the case presented by Sir Robert Burgess’s ‘Grade Point Average; Report of the GPA pilot project 2013-14,’ published by the HEA in May 2015. This report also argued that GPA would offer greater international recognition and increased transparency.

However, the White Paper pins far fewer hopes on a new marking system. It confines GPA references to the suggestion that the TEF will take into account “whether [institutions] are using approaches such as Grade Point Average to provide a more granular account of student performance.”

So was the Green Paper another false dawn for GPA? The policy has been trailed as the solution to the ‘unfitness’ of the UK’s degree classification system since at least 2007. For quite sometime GPA has seemed like an idea whose time is imminent, yet it has remained just out of the grasp of being properly introduced. We’ve been here before. In 2011 seven Russell Group universities were planning to switch to the GPA system, and UCL was considering to adopt it within two years. For all the talk, real progress has been painfully slow. Oxford Brookes have made considerable steps forward, and Abertay University migrated fully to its own idiosyncratic GPA regime in 2014, but the rest are still at pilot stages and ‘dual runnings’.

It seems highly unlikely that there will be any significant progress in the near future without a determined shove from the regulatory or funding bosses. Debate on GPA has hitherto often been desultory and confined largely to registrars and the occasional pro vice chancellor. How an alternative GPA system would operate is still far from clear. More importantly, the argument for its superiority over orthodox approaches remains unconvincing.

The questions avoided by Burgess’s report remain unanswered. Can the sector agree on a common scale? Would such a scale operate purely as a degree classification engine (as a translation of conventional percentile scales), or would it be applied as a marking schema for individual assessments? Either way, the misalignment between the HEA’s preferred grade bands, in which a ‘B’ ranges from 57-66, and traditional classification boundaries would need addressing. Would a GPA approach soften ‘cliff-edge’ effects or improve international comparability? Employers and statisticians would likely continue to make binary divides comparable to the current 2:i cut-off. In operation, the GPA is riddled with alternative approaches and inconsistent calibrations that would undermine its claims to be universal.

If the White Paper accurately reflects that granularity is the government’s primary aim, then the identified shortcomings of the current classification system can easily be addressed by adjustment rather than abandonment. Greater information about course content can be provided through HEAR-type transcripts. More consistent and visible use of the classification mean to two decimal places would provide very considerable specificity and encourage student effort at all levels. If there are concerns about the inconsistency and incomprehensibility of universities’ classification algorithms, then there is plenty of scope both for standardisation and simplification.

Even if we are to read a little more into the White Paper’s juxtaposition between GPA and tackling grade inflation, it is difficult to see what reform could offer. In the HEA’s preferred schema all module marks of 75 and over would be rendered as 4.25, yet examiners are only now beginning to lose their unwarranted reluctance to use more of the post-70 mark range. Student achievement at these higher levels would be negated. Consistency of more modest achievement would be rewarded above occasional high achievement. The Green Paper suggested that ‘students’ had told the government they want the GPA, but there is precious little evidence of any such demand.

All this is particularly frustrating because it is diverting attention from a wider discussion which really could bring significant gains through modest reform. If we strip away all the distractions of mapping classification regimes, we might all the better be able to attend to opportunities which arise from using a limited point assessment scale analogous to grade points.

The University of Warwick’s 17-point marking scale classifies all work on the basis of its broad class, and then its position (low/mid/high) within its class (with the two additional point of zero and ‘excellent first’), and then translates these into trailing 2, 5 and 8 marks with a stretched variant for first class marks. Schemas like Warwick’s respond effectively to significant research on the weaknesses of current practice, and also discourages the concentration of marks in a narrow band and undue preoccupation with borderline marks.

Such marking scales are beginning to spread in the context of GPA discussions (developments at Oxford Brookes are a good example), but tying them to proposals in which tackling grade inflation remains an insidious undercurrent threatens to limit their attractiveness and compromise some of their most valuable effects.

Perhaps the hiatus between the White Paper and the establishment of the new Office for Students provides an opportunity to revisit the fundamental assumptions that seem to have powered the GPA bandwagon, and to reconsider more constructive solutions to the apparent problems of our assessment and classification procedures.

One response to “Another false dawn for Grade Point Averages?

  1. Martin Hewitt’s blog is a welcome contribution to the continuing debate about current systems for classifying students’ achievements in HE.

    Addressing his point about granularity, it is important to recognise that the HEAR provides more than information about course content. It provides a verified record of student achievement in formal and extra- and co-curricular activities during their Higher Education career. It therefore produces a richer picture of their development of knowledge, understanding, higher level skills, attributes and attitudes, which will enable them to make successful transitions into work.

    Whilst the Green Paper in November 2015 described the adoption of the HEAR as ‘an important development’ which ‘will help provide students and employers with richer information’, the White Paper makes no mention of it. This may simply be an oversight as the Green Paper suggested that ‘this work needs greater urgency’.

    The HEA believes that implementing the HEAR and its use in dialogue with students about their all-round progress and development in HE is important evidence of teaching excellence. As such, it should be included in the list of indicative evidence, which might form part of provider submissions to the TEF.

    In April 2016, the HEA held the inaugural meeting of a GPA National Implementation Group, chaired by Professor Sir Bob Burgess. This is designed to act as a forum for discussion and debate on the strategic and practical considerations of implementing the GPA and to formulate information, advice and guidance for higher education providers on implementation. As part of the work of that group, the HEA is undertaking further research on the variety of honours degree classification systems in use in the UK and on the similarities and differences in GPA systems around the world.

    Rather than a false dawn, the White Paper represents a significant opportunity for the sector to explore the advantages and disadvantages of running a GPA system alongside the Honours Degree classification, as recommended by the HEA’s report on its GPA pilot. ( ).

    The GPA cannot – and should not – be imposed on an autonomous HE sector. The TEF could provide the incentive for institutions to develop a consensual approach to how student achievement is best presented.

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