Degree classification for the 21st Century

By Carl Gilleard –

A university education is greater than the sum of its parts: not just a series of course options, but a challenge to think about the connections between these elements; not merely a chance to make friends for life, but an opportunity to work alongside peers in teams that thrive on diversity; a time for indulging one’s thirst for knowledge and preparing for a fulfilling career.

The UK Honours degree is a robust qualification which garners worldwide respect; however, we are betraying our graduates by leaving them with nothing but a blunt degree classification with which to express their attainment. The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) has consistently supported the development of the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), due to be issued to graduates across the UK higher education sector from the academic year 2012–13.

The HEAR is intended to give a broader and more balanced picture of a graduate’s achievements, including a full transcript of results for all modules, and a record of extra-curricular involvement such as the students’ union, societies and sports clubs. It is very encouraging that more than 80 institutions are now operating or introducing the HEAR, and I believe that more and more employers will come to use this in their recruitment, with positive outcomes for both graduates and recruiters.

Graduates in the 21st century are expected to demonstrate a myriad of skills and understanding beyond their academic subject; recruiters are increasingly striving to find ways to assess candidates on such abstract characteristics as ambition, or self development, there are also a myriad of ‘soft skills’ which are highly valued by employers, and which are developed outside the lecture hall, library or seminar room.

As recruiters become increasingly creative in their attempts to capture and assess these significant yet abstract personal attributes, applicants for graduate schemes can expect to be put through their paces in selection processes which may have five stages or more a system which is gruelling for graduates and cost-heavy for organisations, and which could be slimmed-down if recruiters were provided with more detailed graduate profiles by universities in the first instance.

As tuition fees increase, two year degrees are a tempting option, but in my opinion these condensed courses do not allow enough time for students to mature, pursue a range of extra-curricular interests or develop the skills required in the workplace. It would be a great shame if students on two year courses finished this whistle-stop tour of higher education having sacrificed personal development to academic achievement.

However, many students sense that academic achievement – boiling down to a 1st, 2:1, 2:2 and beyond – can make or break their first job applications. Final exams loom large, and results day can be traumatic: the University of Oxford has recently complained of an increase in students – and ‘pushy parents’ – demanding that their exams be remarked. Pushiness aside, this reveals students’ frustration at the fact that three or four years of work should come down to one number, and to the crucial distinction between classes of degree.

It seems nonsensical that two fellow graduates should have the same 2:1 degree class prominently placed at the top of their CVs, even if one has attained an overall mark of nearly ten percentage points higher than the other. An English Literature student who has obtained a high 2:1 whilst complementing study through student journalism or drama should have a standardised and official way of distinguishing him or herself from a classmate who has scraped a 2:1 and failed to contribute to university life.

It is no wonder that graduates become fixated on degree classification, since recruiters often rely on the 2:1 as a cut-off point in sifting through the increasing number of graduates competing for each job. Ironically, however, employers must question what these classifications truly prove as the percentage of students being awarded a 1st or 2:1 increases year-on-year. Hard-working graduates deserve a degree classification which means more.

Meanwhile, increasing competition for jobs, and the lack of a standard system which expresses the non-academic achievements of our graduates, is apparently leading to ‘CV fraud’, with Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) announcing recently funding for a service which will provide degree checks on candidates.

Whereas CVs might once have been bolstered with unverifiable extra-curricular activities, the HEAR will ensure reliability and clarity. The hours put into extracurricular team or acting as treasurer for a society will be recorded, verified and recognised. And it is my hope that giving graduates the chance to make the most of the extracurricular experience which they have gained during education will end the premium on unpaid work experience and internships post-university (which can have a negative impact on social mobility).

The HEAR has the potential to change graduate recruitment for the better acknowledge to be unfit for purpose. In defining ‘quality’ in higher education, we look at intellectual enjoyment and attainment, but also consider students’ opportunities to prepare for a fulfilling career. It makes complete sense, therefore, that recruiters should have a verified and standardised tool that enables them to get a clear picture of a candidate’s quality along these diverse lines – not just demonstrating academic achievement, but showing their readiness for the world of work, ability to contribute to a team, and awareness of the way organisations function. As tuition fees increase, students deserve a system that reflects not just hours in the library in the lead-up to exams, but also the many other elements of university life.

Carl Gilleard is Chief Executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR). He has been in the role for nearly fifteen years. Prior to the AGR, Carl was the Executive Director for METRA Services Ltd, a national recruitment consultancy charged with improving the recruitment and retention of graduates into local government, for nine years. He was also joint regional director of the West Midlands Employers Organisation. The earlier part of his career was spent in Education Management and Personnel Work.

The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) is the recognised national voice for all UK employers involved in graduate recruitment. The AGR has 750 members from both the public and private sectors.

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