In the not too distant future, most universities are expected to adopt a set of radical changes to the way in which future employers are able to assess students’ abilities.

Universities will provide a much more detailed account of students’ achievements, recording not only degree classification but individual modular and paper marks as well as details of extra-curricular activities such as societal, musical and sporting involvement.

This document, to be known as a Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), will be held by the university in electronic form. It will be updated during the student’s period of study at university with consultation between the student and university as to what is included. Once the student has graduated, however, it cannot be altered, acting as a permanent digital footprint of a student’s time at university. The system has been extensively piloted (with individual university permission), with 45,000 HEARs produced this year.

Professor Burgess, Vice-Chancellor of Leicester University, has said: “The HEAR is designed to encourage a more sophisticated approach to recording students’ achievements in the 21st Century.” Questions have been raised, however, over whether the document will provide anything above and beyond what employers already receive.

Employers are currently so over-bombarded with CVs and covering letters when any vacancy becomes available that they barely have time to read through CVs, at best skim-reading and sometimes, allegedly, scanning them through a computer for certain words or phrases. So is a document of up to six pages in length actually going to be read?

More to the point, what positive data will it evidence that could not go on a CV? It is perfectly possible to list extra-curricular activities, in either a CV or covering letter, if they are applicable to the job in hand, and, if not, what use would an employer gain from knowing about them?

It is unclear precisely what a student can choose to omit from their HEAR but, since no-one is going to include something controversial or negative if it is possible to hide it, will HEARs not just amount to an extra CV listing how great a candidate is? In this case, it seems unlikely that prospective employers will be able to derive any real nuggets of valuable information about an applicant which they would not already have received via a CV/covering letter.

Universities Minister David Willetts has said HEARs will enable employers “to make more informed choices about who to employ, rather than relying on degree class alone.” Well, if degree class is all that matters, why has everyone been wasting their time writing CVs and covering letters, and how will HEARs change that? Does a great HEAR and a 2:1 override an average HEAR and a First?

Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruits, believes it will allow students to present a fuller picture of themselves. It is true that it will provide a more rounded academic profile – module and paper marks could give employers an improved insight into student’s abilities. But, suppose he/she had an off day, messed up their exam and received a poor mark, is it fair for a student to be discounted for one slip-up anyone could make? Surely the whole point of a degree classification is to give a balanced, overall assessment of an individual’s abilities.

While HEARs may remove the pressure of trying to achieve a first, it may well place more pressure on students to get involved in societies and sporting teams, which could indirectly detriment their academic performance.

Is a further piece of accreditation the answer, or is the answer to reduce the number of students nationwide by encouraging and promoting more vocational, apprenticeship and internship-type qualifications? It strikes this observer as the wrong answer to a nonetheless valid question: how to distinguish between so many seemingly equally qualified candidates?

It is widely acknowledged that, in the words of Carl Gilleard, “the degree classification system is not fit for purpose”; he describes it as “a blunt and inconsistent measure”.

However, as a response to the less than satisfactory degree classification system, HEARs raise more questions than it answers, seem merely to duplicate useful experiences that could otherwise be highlighted in a CV/covering letter, and overload employers with excessive (and sometimes irrelevant) information. The proposal needs at least clarification, and at best a total rethink.

Stephen Gilmore

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