Skip to main contentCambridge University Reporter

No 6574

Thursday 23 January 2020

Vol cl No 16

pp. 293–304


Joint Report of the Council and the General Board on the introduction of a final degree classification

The Council and the General Board beg leave to report to the University as follows:

1. Currently the vast majority of undergraduate courses at Cambridge lead to a single degree, the Bachelor of Arts. No official class is assigned to the overall degree. Instead, each Part of a Tripos is self-contained and students obtain separate results for each one: there is no averaging of marks nor system for accumulation of marks to obtain a single final degree classification. Sometimes, unofficially, the phrase ‘a double first’ is used. This means that a first class was achieved in two sets of examinations corresponding to two different Parts of a Tripos.

2. The subject of introducing a final degree classification was raised in the Review of Examinations final report published in 2017. Directors of Teaching and others expressed genuine concern about a lack of understanding of the operation of the Tripos system amongst students, academics and employers, and a desire to modify the existing classification system by adopting a cumulative class at the end of the course in addition to the existing classification system for each Part of the Tripos.

3. The Careers Service endorses the case for change identified during the Review. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most employers do not understand the Cambridge Tripos system and incorrectly assume that for Cambridge students the class awarded in the final year is the cumulative class for the degree. Many employers now require applicants to complete online forms which do not cater for the idiosyncrasies of the Cambridge degree system. The position can be further confused when students attempt to ‘average out’ their results to obtain a single classification; the Careers Service cites occasional but significant cases of offers of employment being withdrawn once the accuracy of a successful applicant’s credentials has been checked.

4. In terms of progression to postgraduate study, Cambridge generally requires candidates to have achieved an upper second in their undergraduate studies. For Cambridge graduates proceeding to Cambridge postgraduate courses the University uses the final (Part II) result as a proxy for a final degree class, rather than recognising performance across all three years. Other institutions are likely to be using the same proxy when making decisions on whether to accept Cambridge graduates for further study.

5. In 2017, the Higher Education and Research Act established the Office for Students (OfS) as the higher education regulator in England. The OfS’s regulatory framework1 requires higher education providers to register with the OfS, and in order to register providers have to meet a number of conditions. Cambridge University registered with the OfS in July 2018. It is implicit in the language of the regulatory framework that the OfS does not recognise that some providers do not have overall degree classifications.2 The absence of a degree classification at Cambridge will frustrate the regulator’s attempt to conduct a sector analysis of degree classifications, and increase the likelihood that using a final degree classification will in time become a regulatory requirement where they do not already exist.

In response to the OfS’s concerns about grade inflation in England, Universities UK (UUK) called on the sector to ‘reiterate its commitment to protecting the value of its qualifications’ through a Statement of Intent (May 2019). Like the OfS, the UUK Statement makes the assumption that its members are using final degree classifications, and it expects members to take actions, including ‘reviewing and explaining how their process for calculating final classifications fully reflect student attainment against learning criteria’.

One of the conditions of registration that the University must meet is B3: ‘The provider must deliver successful outcomes for all of its students, which are recognised and valued by employers and/or enable further study’. The issues raised in paragraphs 3 and 4 above indicates that the recognition of the University’s degrees is already problematic. There is a risk that if recognition deteriorates, the University may become non-compliant with B3 and the conditions of registration with the regulator.

6. In May 2017, after extensive consultation with Faculties, Departments and Senior Tutors, the General Board’s Education Committee agreed to recommend to the General Board that the University create a system of overall degree classification for the Cambridge B.A. (Honours) Degree for the following reasons:

(a)to make it clearer to stakeholders (including students and employers) how students have performed across the whole of their studies;

(b)to reflect that many students and employers already believe that Cambridge provides an overall classification of its degrees;

(c)to allow, at the discretion of Faculty Boards but with the approval of the Education Committee, differential weighting of years of study; and

(d)to bring Cambridge into line with the sector and the expectations of the Office for Students.

A Working Group was established to develop proposals. The Working Group comprised representatives of the six Schools, the Senior Tutors’ Education Committee, CamSIS (the student records system) and Cambridge University Students’ Union, and was chaired by a member of the Education Committee.

7. Following the deliberation of the Working Group, further discussions of the Education Committee and a second consultation with Faculty Boards about possible schemes, the Council and the General Board, on the recommendation of the Education Committee, propose that the B.A. (Honours) degree for all Triposes be classed with a single cumulative class. This would be in addition to the usual classification of each Part. Following consultation with Faculty Boards in Lent Term 2019, two preferred schemes of weighting emerged and it is proposed that Triposes be routinely expected to adopt one or other scheme for the cumulative class: either Year 1: 0%, Year 2: 30%, Year 3: 70% or Year 1: 0%, Year 2: 0% and Year 3: 100%.

8. Faculty Boards would, however, be permitted to seek authority from the General Board’s Education Committee to adopt a different scheme on clear academic grounds. With that approval, Faculty Boards would be able, for example, to adopt a scheme of 0:50:50 where papers are shared across year groups, or vary the weightings from year group to year group. In the case of borrowed papers the relevant Faculty Boards concerned will need to come to an agreement regarding the appropriate weighting for their separate cohorts.

9. Given its unique format, the Management Studies Tripos will run a slightly different scheme. Candidates taking the Tripos in their third year will be classed using the 0:30:70 weighting, with 30% of marks coming from the second-year Tripos. Candidates taking the Tripos in their fourth year will be classed by their Part II Tripos scheme only; the Management Studies Tripos result will not be factored into the overall degree classification but the mark and class will appear on the transcript.

10. In response to concerns about potential impact by gender, an analysis using historical data has been carried out, assuming that the examination scores in the penultimate and final years of the examination would be the same as under the current system of no degree classification and the proposed 0:30:70 model is adopted. In this analysis, a slightly negative statistical difference for female candidates was identified between scores obtained in the final year examination and derived scores using the 0:30:70 model (the modelling did not detect any impacts on male candidates, either at the overall University level or for any specific examination). However, even in those cases where a negative impact was identified, the difference ceased to be significant when the weighting of the calculated scores was changed to 0:25:75. This modelling does not make any allowance for the probable change in students’ approach to learning and preparation for the assessment under the revised regime, but it is not anticipated that such a change in behaviour would counterbalance the difference identified. If the changes proposed in this Report are approved, Faculty Boards would be strongly encouraged to undertake their own analysis of performance by gender and to seek the approval of the General Board for adjustments to the standard weighting as appropriate.

11. It is intended that overall degree classification will be introduced for the cohort of students who matriculate in October 2020 and graduate in 2023. Students who graduate in 2021 and 2022 will be not be affected. Students who matriculated before 2020, yet graduate in or after 2021 (2020 for affiliated students) because of one or multiple instances of intermission, will not receive an overall classification. Similarly, affiliated students who matriculate in 2020 and graduate in 2022 will not receive an overall degree classification.

12. As currently, each year of study would continue to be classed and results included on the University transcript alongside the overall degree classification. The exception would be preliminary examinations which would not be formally classed and would not contribute to the overall degree classification. In the case of integrated Master’s degrees, arrangements for the Master’s year would remain unchanged and that year would not be included in the proposed classification scheme.

13. Under the proposals, the overall degree classification of individual candidates would be determined by Examiners, in accordance with their academic judgement. Decisions on final degree classifications would fall to Part II Examination Boards. Some Boards will need to determine the class of candidates who have changed Tripos or subject in their final year of study before qualifying for the B.A. (Honours) Degree (for example, Medical and Veterinary students who are required to take another subject in their third year).

14. Where Examination Boards would be determining the overall class for the degree, the Examiners would be provided with information about performance of candidates in all years of their study. After examining, classing and ranking of the final Part (blind to earlier results), the Examiners would then be required to combine weighted marks for all years and determine boundaries and the overall degree classification. Data would be provided centrally. As with any other examination result, students will have the opportunity to challenge a degree classification on limited grounds using the Examination Review Procedure.

15. An Ordinary B.A. Degree awarded by the Examinations Access and Mitigation Committee (formerly the Applications Committee) would not be cumulatively classed.

16. Candidates who have been allowed to progress from Year 1 to Year 2 within a 0:30:70 weighted Tripos should be classified in line with that weighting scheme. Candidates who have been allowed to progress from Year 1 to Year 2 within a 0:0:100 weighted Tripos, or from Year 2 to Year 3 in either a 0:0:100 or 0:30:70 weighted Tripos, should be classified using the weighting 0:0:100 regardless of Tripos scheme. Candidates who have been ‘declared to have deserved Honours’ in their third year would not receive an overall degree classification.3

17. It is proposed that, as with class-lists for individual Tripos Examinations, Examination Boards would be required to produce degree class-lists, signed by all members of the competent Board of Examiners at the final meeting. Students who choose to opt out of publication of their results on the class-list for the examination which qualifies them for the B.A. Degree will also be deemed to have opted out from publication of their name on the class‑list for the overall B.A. degree classification.

18. At its meeting on 25 October 2019, the Senior Tutors’ Committee agreed to support this proposal.

19.The Council and the General Board recommend:

  I.That, with effect from 1 October 2020, the proposal to award a single cumulative class to candidates completing the final Part of a Tripos, in addition to the classification of each Part, be approved.

  II.That, if Recommendation I is approved and subject to the approval of Her Majesty in Council, the Statutes of the University be amended as set out below and that these amendments be submitted under the Common Seal of the University to Her Majesty in Council for approval.4

By amending the last sentence of Section 12 of Statute D II (Statutes and Ordinances, p. 30) to read as follows:

If the disciplinary panel finds that the accused person has committed an act of academic misconduct, it may advise the Vice-Chancellor to issue a notice amending the class-list for the examination or other list of approved candidates, or to issue an amended list superseding the original list, or to revise the overall degree classification of a candidate; the Vice-Chancellor shall act in accordance with the advice of the disciplinary panel or, if an appeal is made, in accordance with the decision of the disciplinary appeal panel.

III.That, if Recommendation I is approved, new Regulation 5 below be inserted in the regulations for the degree of Bachelor of Arts by Honours (Statutes and Ordinances, p. 446), and current Regulation 5 renumbered 6:

5. The relevant Board of Examiners for each Tripos shall be required to award each candidate an overall degree classification in accordance with a scheme approved by the General Board for that Tripos. The Board of Examiners shall publish a class-list in accordance with the regulations for the publication of lists of successful candidates in examinations. In each list the names of the successful candidates shall be arranged in three classes, of which the second shall be divided into two divisions.

20 January 2020

Stephen Toope,Vice-Chancellor

Sharon Flood

Mark Lewisohn

Madeleine Atkins

Anthony Freeling

Edward Parker Humphreys

Gaenor Bagley

David Greenaway

Richard Penty

Alessandro Ceccarelli

Jennifer Hirst

Andrew Sanchez

R. Charles

Nicholas Holmes

Jason Scott-Warren

Poppy Cockburn

Fiona Karet

Mark Wormald

Stephen J. Cowley

Christopher Kelly

Jocelyn Wyburd

27 November 2019

Stephen Toope,Vice-Chancellor

John Dennis

Richard Rex

Kristine Black-Hawkins

A. L. Greer

Graham Virgo

Alessandro Ceccarelli

Nicholas Holmes

Mark Wormald

Ann Copestake

Anna Philpott

Christopher Young


  • 1

  • 2For instance, it sets out that registered providers will be monitored using data from lead indicators, which include ‘degree and other outcomes’ (p. 50); and ‘The OfS will, as a matter of routine, undertake an annual analysis of degree classification trends at sector and provider level’ (p. 91). 

  • 3Candidates can be declared to have deserved honours in their third (or fourth) year only. The equivalent examination allowance in earlier years is to be put in standing to progress. 

  • 4As this is a consequential amendment to Statute, it is proposed that changes under Recommendations I and III would take effect on 1 October 2020 following approval by Grace.