Concern has been raised by academics and University officials after data surveying degree classification in 2008/9 showed inconsistency between some academic departments.
The information, which was put together by the Standing Committee on Assessment and presented to University Senate, illustrated that students doing English are almost eight times more likely to be awarded a First than those doing Management. Similarly, while 100 per cent of music students are awarded a 2:1 or higher, only 42 per cent of those studying Electronics achieve above a Third.
This is in comparison to the departmental average for all 1994 and Russell group universities, where 65 per cent of Electronics degrees are of “good class” standard – defined by the report as a first or a high 2:1 – and just 12 per cent are awarded a Third or lower.
The data also shows a 2.8 per cent point decrease in Firsts or high 2:1s being awarded overall across the University, falling from 74.1 per cent in 2006/7 to 71.3 per cent in 2008/9.
There are concerns that such figures will serve to devalue degrees from departments such as Politics, where only 2 per cent of students achieve a Third or fail, or History, where over 90% of students are awarded a first or a 2:1, in comparison to physics where only 52% are achieving a similarly high class degree. It also raises questions on the varying standards of degrees between departments such as English and Electronics.
The survey revealed that over the last three years, the gaps between certain academic departments have continued to widen, particularly between arts based subjects and those with more of a basis in science. Those awarding a higher than average percentage of higher class degrees have tended to see increases in “good degrees”, whereas those awarding a lower than average percentage of “good degrees” over the last few years have tended to see decreases, reinforcing rather than diminishing the variability of degree classification across the institution. This has been termed the ‘York effect’ in the report.
The departments that show the most deterioration include Biology, which has shown a significant three year drop falling from 80 per cent in 2006/7 to 58 per cent in 2008/9, and Physics, which has seen a steady decrease over the three year stage.
“It is really worrying to be shown statistics like this and doesn’t really inspire much confidence in the University.”
First-year Management student
Adversely, Music has shown an increase of over 25 per cent in the number of good degrees awarded during the same period.
Tim Ngwena, YUSU President, who was present at the Senate meeting, commented: “The University of York, like most good universities, has extensive quality assurance procedures in place to ensure the quality of teaching as well as ensuring degrees challenge students. However, the variation in degree classification in departments at York does raise some concerns.”
It has also been highlighted that the data is not completely comprehensive, with History and History of Art being combined under one category, and deparments such as Physics being inclusive of a variety of different branches of the subject. The forms of assessment for arts and sciences also vary radically, with English having no exams, making it difficult to draw completely accurate comparisons between the departments.
Nathan Buss, a first-year Management student, expressed his concerns over the percentages revealed. “It is a bit worrying to be shown statistics like this, and doesn’t really inspire much confidence in the University. It shows there are problems that need to be addressed to make sure that our degrees don’t suffer in any way.”
The data places York 11th in the country for the percentage of good degrees awarded, with 71.4 per cent. This is behind universities such as Exeter, which has a percentage of 77.6 and Sussex, which has 76.4 per cent. The data also placed York third in a table of universities with a pattern of decrease in good degrees over the past three years, falling only just behind Sussex and Reading. This comes after a drop in York’s overall performance in The Times University league table last year.
However, despite the fluctuation between departments, York still remains just above the 1994 and Russell Group degree average.
Indeed, not all students are worried, with a second-year Music student stating: “Even though some departments have clearly been doing quite badly, York is still above the average and so I’m not too concerned. The results for music are a testament to how amazing the department is, and shows exactly why I chose to come to York.”
The survey also revealed the University of York course completion rates, which have been viewed much more positively. The data shows departments such as Economics and English have rates as high as 99 per cent, and Music has a 100 per cent of students completing the three year course. The department with the lowest completion rate is the Modern Languages department who have 25 per of students dropping out.
Charlie Leyland, YUSU Academic Affairs Officer, commented in response to the results: “My biggest concern is the consistent variation of ‘good degrees’ being awarded by different departments… Although the University have agreed to set up a working group to look into these matters more deeply, we may never understand the whole issue.”