A leading Midland academic has warned that Britain’s degree classification system has reached its “sell by date” amid claims that lecturers are being put under pressure to turn a blind eye to cheating.
Jonathan Bate CBE, an English professor at the University of Warwick who has held visiting posts at some of America’s most prestigious universities, said it was time to reform the structure where students are awarded first, second and third class degrees.
Professor Bate spoke out after figures showing the proportion of firsts awarded by British higher education institutions has doubled over the last decade.
Prof Geoffrey Alderman, former chairman of the academic council at the University of London, yesterday warned a “league table culture” was responsible for an explosion in the number of firsts awarded.
He maintained lecturers were under pressure to be lenient with students and ignore examples of plagiarism to maintain a good academic record.
Prof Alderman said the situation was particularly acute with overseas students who universities are keen to attract because of the higher fees they pay.
Prof Bate said he thought it was unlikely that academics were having their arms twisted to boost exam grades.
But the academic, who has held visiting posts at Harvard, Yale and the University of California, Los Angeles, added: “There is no doubt there is a culture over the last 10 years whereby grades have gone up massively.
“Partly it is because students are more focused on exams and know how to play the system. Another big factor is that a lot of universities now have a much higher proportion of continuous assessment.
“Generally speaking it is easier to get good marks in continuous assessment than exams. Having all these modular courses with continuous assessment do raise problems because plagiarism is almost impossible to do in an exam.”
Prof Bate said whereas in the past only a small minority gained a first class degree and a 2.2 was considered a benchmark acceptable pass, now firsts were far more common and a 2.2 was virtually regarded as a fail.
“The problem is with the system,” he said.
“If everyone is getting a 2.1 it is really hard for those at the top of the 2.1 scale to be lumped with those at the bottom.
“I think we need a different type of system like maybe in the US where you have an average grade score across subjects. I think the old degree classification may have reached its sell-by date.”
British universities have come under increased pressure from students in recent years with the introduction of tuition top-up fees.
Commentators believe it has encouraged a shift in relationship between student and education institution in which undergraduates expect to see value for money in the form of a decent degree.
The Birmingham Post recently reported how an overseas student is attempting to sue Birmingham University for £10 million, claiming it failed to discharge its duty of care towards him - something the institution vigorously denies.
Figures show the number of top-class degrees awarded shot up over the past decade from 16,708 to 36,645 - while the undergraduate population has increased by just over 40 per cent.
Prof Alderman said: “Standards of English literacy at UK universities are often poor. To compensate for this, lecturers are pressurised to ‘mark positively’.
“This is particularly true in relation to international students, whose full cost fees are now a lucrative and essential source of much-needed revenue.”