Institutional Bias and the Degree Class System

George L. Heritage, Andrew D. Thomas

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Over the last decade the proportion of students in higher education obtaining aggregate marks over 60 per cent has steadily increased. Whilst standards of learning and teaching may have improved due to the existence of quality assurance agencies and the efforts of individual higher education institutions a significant factor remains that could also have influenced this rise. The degree of autonomy allowed to individual higher education institutions regarding the systems in place to decide on the degree class awarded to a student can significantly alter the cohort degree class profile. Most institutions operate an aggregate mean marking system tied to algorithms designed to reward borderline students who have performed well across all of their modules. These algorithms vary between institutions and their effect on a cohort of 120 geography students has been investigated using the classification systems operated by 10 geography departments in England. The results indicate that a significant number of students receive higher degree classes that they would under the strict aggregate mean rules. More significantly, there is evidence that award levels vary between institutions as a result of the variety of algorithms that exist. In several instances over 10 per cent of students received elevated degree class awards with an inter-institutional variation of several per cent. These discrepancies are significant enough to warrant a review of the present system with a view to introducing operational standards across the university sector.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)285-297
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Geography in Higher Education
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 01 May 2007


  • degree class
  • geography degree
  • marking algorithm


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