By Geoff Stoakes
In May, the Higher Education Academy (HEA) published a report about the pilot study into a national grade point average (GPA) system. This study was prompted by the debate around the perceived limitations of the honours degree classification (HDC) system, in particular, insufficient differentiation between student performance, a lack of recognition outside the UK, and limited transparency in how the HDC is calculated by different higher education providers.
In his speech on 1 July 2015 at Universities UK, Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities and Science, highlighted that one of the things he wants to focus on in the forthcoming green paper is how a Teaching Excellence Framework can help improve how degrees are classified. He believes that the standard model of classes of honours on its own is “no longer capable of providing the recognition hardworking students deserve and the information employers require.” He acknowledged the useful work of the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) but feels the area needs greater urgency, and highlighted the finding from the HEA’s review of external examining arrangements across the UK that nearly half of institutions had changed their degree algorithms in the past five years to “ensure that their students were not disadvantaged compared to those in other institutions”. http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/rereports/Year/2015/externalexam/Title,104316,en.html
So clearly there is further work to be done. For the study, 21 diverse providers performed a retrospective data modelling exercise on 2012-13 student achievement outcomes using a common GPA scale. A sample of these providers carried out further modelling using a number of amended scales in order to determine one that could be recommended to the sector.
One of the key findings of the pilot was the importance to stakeholders of a nationally-agreed, common scale: this is considered crucial for the acceptance and success of GPA in the UK. The report suggested that a GPA system that runs alongside HDC may provide an opportunity to complement and add value to existing practice, including use of the HEAR. This would have a range of advantages compared to an immediate change to GPA as the sole system. In the longer term, GPA, with grade points ranging from 0 to 4.25, has the potential to provide greater transparency and comparability regarding student awards across subjects, programmes and providers than is currently offered by the HDC system.
So what happens next? The context for the potential of the GPA has changed overnight now that it has become clear that it will be a focus for forthcoming policy. The GPA national advisory group, which oversaw the pilot, recommended the widespread dissemination and consultation across the sector and with interested parties such as employers and professional, statutory and regulatory bodies. It also recommended the development of guidance for key stakeholder groups: this has already been produced for students, employers and academic institutions and is available at:
There are early indications that large employers would welcome the transparency of GPA and a cumulative measure of achievement to help them with pre-graduation recruitment. The pilot providers considered that the development of widespread stakeholder understanding and commitment would require clear communication to be sustained over a number of years. There was also a consensus among pilot providers that change to institutional regulations may be required in implementing GPA.
UK degree awarding bodies as autonomous institutions have the power to decide whether or not to adopt a GPA system and the nature of that system. The report concludes from the evidence that introducing a GPA system would have benefits to UK higher education in terms of greater granularity in awards, international recognition, and the potential to encourage student motivation and engagement.
Dr Geoff Stoakes is Head of Research at the Higher Education Academy.