UK’s Grading System Gets an F

A recent article in the Guardian addressed the UK’s current university grading system and its flaws.  For those unfamiliar with how the British grading system works, both the Fullbright Commission and World Education Services provide explanations and conversions to US letter grades.  Basically, university students in the UK receive percentage grades throughout their studies, and then are awarded a degree with one of the following degree classifications:

  • First
  • Upper Second (2:1)
  • Lower Second (2:2)
  • Third
  • Pass
  • Fail

As the Guardian describes, problems arise when university graduates begin to apply for jobs.  It is common in the UK for employers to limit their applicant pools by cutting off those applicants who fall below a certain classification level.  This is similar to U.S. employers restricting their applicant pools by GPA.  However, there is one big difference, which the Guardian begins to touch on, and I will explore in greater detail.

Essentially, the British system differs from the US’s use of GPAs in that it is an ordinal scale as opposed to a ratio scale.  Ordinal scales are measurement systems that organize data into ordered groups, e.g. first, second, third.  The increments between these groups are not necessarily the same, and the ranking system does not give any information regarding differences among data points within a given group.  Ratio scales, on the other hand, have equal intervals between scale values and use zero as a true origin, allowing people to express one data point as a ratio of another.

One benefit to using a ratio scale, such as GPA, instead of an ordinal scale is that steps on a ratio scale are in standardized increments.  For example, the difference between students receiving “Firsts” and students receiving “Lower Seconds” can differ greatly.  If the equivalent GPA of the student with a “First” is 3.9 and that of the “Lower Second” is 2.7, the difference is quite large.  On the other hand, the “First” could be a 3.4, and the “Lower Second” could be a 3.0.  It is clear that the GPA ratio scale provides much more information and allows more informed comparisons of job applicants.

Another benefit of ratio scales is that increments can be divided into smaller increments until they are infinitesimally small.  For example, you may represent a GPA as a 3.0, a 2.95, or even a 2.951.  This allows for increased precision, the lack of which is at the root of the problem facing the applicants described by the Guardian.  Under the British system, if there are two hiring managers, one looking for applicants who earned the equivalent of a 3.2 GPA and one looking for applicants with a 2.9 GPA, both may end up using “Upper Seconds” as a cut-off.  Under a different scale, some applicants with “Lower Seconds” may have been eligible for the second position.  This is particularly an issue for students at the higher end of their degree classification.

It would appear that the dean in the article has good reason to suggest that British universities switch to a GPA system.  Another suggestion, which might require less adjustment, might be to retain the percentage system (another ratio scale) already in place and simply not assign a final degree classification.  Either way, it is clear the degree classification system currently in place has its flaws.

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