I recently came upon an odd news story about a Scottish university graduate that highlights a bunch of problems in creating classifications.

First, some background. At universities in Scotland, students are awarded honours degrees (the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in the U.S.) after completing four years of study. These honours are divided into four ranks. First class is awarded to top students, followed by upper second class (2:1), lower second class (2:2), and third class. Students who do not meet the minimum score for a third class are given an ordinary degree (the equivalent of an associate degree in the U.S.).

In a story featured in the Edinburgh Evening News Jun 2011, a recent graduate of Edinburgh Napier University named Glen Dickson is suing the school to challenge his degree classification. Rather than following a strict mathematical rule to divide up the students into the classes, the school allows students just below the cutoff point for a higher classification to submit a petition outlining why they deserve to be considered for the next higher group.

Specifically, Edinburgh Napier University awards any student who has a score of 59.5 or higher an automatic 2:1 degree. Students with scores below that level automatically receive the less prestigious 2:2 classification. However, students with a score between 58.0 and 59.4 can petition the school to receive the next higher classification.

Mr. Dickson received at 59.41 and submitted a petition stating that he was involved in an automobile accident and had health issues that resulted in his lower scores. The school denied his petition because he had scored outside the range where petitions were allowed.


Glen Dickson shows his diploma. Photo from Edinburgh Evening News

The first problem I see with the classification scheme is its mere existence. By converting the fine-grained raw scores into four classifications, the honours degrees masks the wide range of abilities within a class and creates large differences between the classes.

Since the raw scores are available, why not just get rid of the classifications. Sophisticated employers ought to be able to use the raw score as a factor when choosing university graduates as new hires. However, it is likely that most employers won’t be able to do that. They don’t understand how graduates are selected to be in each classification, how many graduates are in each level, and the correlation between class level and job performance. Thus, they were likely to just use it as a crude filter, which hurts all graduates in any level below the top one.

The second problem is the rules for filing a petition. Regardless of your opinion about petitions to increase grades for reasons unrelated to classroom performance, I doubt the school’s intent was to exclude students with scores between 59.400…1 to 59.499…9 from being able to file a petition. If that gap was intentional, it seems very arbitrary and cruel. (Don’t get me started on the Medicare prescription drug coverage donut hole.)

Here’s a final note on this story. As several commenters on the Evening News website note, Mr. Dickson’s legal strategy may be flawed. By publicizing his case, he may get the higher level honours degree, but how many companies will be eager to hire a person who may in the future sue his own employer to get ahead?