Solving a grade conversion conundrum

Solving a grade conversion conundrum Forum Week

Wrapping up Forum Week, we look at how research can be applied to solve on-the-ground challenges like grade conversion. Today's post explores how two institutions participating in a joint Master's programme addressed the issue of inconsistent conversion of grades for students who studied abroad. Their research led to a new conversion policy, demonstrating one model for how other universities can guarantee consistency and transparency of grading.

The Brussels Faculty of Engineering (Bruface) is a joint degree programme in the field of Engineer-ing, offered by Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). Together, they offer five Master of Science degree programmes in English over a period of two years (120 ECTS). As part of their internationalisation efforts, both universities encourage their students to un-dertake an Erasmus+ exchange with one of their partner institutions. However, a lack of uniformity between both universities and a need of transparency with regard to the existing grade conversion guidelines made students question whether going abroad was worth jeopardising their academic records. Both universities realised action was needed in order to address this challenge.

Addressing student concerns

In response to this concerning trend, VUB and ULB firstly surveyed their students in order to under-stand their reasoning and identify the key issues at heart. The study showed that students worried that their grades achieved at the partner institution were converted in a wrong or unfair way, often lacking any concrete data or insight to justify the conversion. In addition, some students reported that some grades were converted differently between VUB and ULB, despite having achieved the same result at the partner institution. Lead by these inconsistencies, students believed an exchange abroad might negatively affect their academic records or chances when applying for a scholarship of PhD programme, and therefore abstained from undertaking an exchange programme. Both univer-sities concluded that a joint effort to carry out an in-depth and extensive review of their grade con-version policy was needed if they wanted to increase the number of students going abroad.

The second phase of the research consisted of conducting a mapping and benchmarking study of the existing guidelines at both universities, in addition to collecting previously converted grades from outgoing exchange students over the past five academic years. This resulted in a grading scale where some discrepancies became apparent: firstly, it was clear there were a number of inconsist-encies between the conversion policies at VUB and ULB for the same partner universities. Secondly, there was a notable difference between the theoretical conversion policy (the grading scales made available to the students prior to exchange) and the actual applied converted grade after exchange, possibly influenced by the subjectivity of each case due to the lack of transparent guidelines availa-ble. The benchmarking study confirmed that the policy lacked transparency and uniformity between the two universities, which negatively affected the students who had returned from their ex-change.

Having identified and confirmed the key issues, VUB and ULB analysed several potential methodol-ogies to review the grade conversion policy. Following the recommendations of the European Commission, they adopted the ECTS scale methodology, which allows for a comparison based on the statistical distribution of grades within the field of study at both the home and partner institution. Both universities concluded that one common conversion policy should be put in place between VUB and ULB for all five Master of Science degrees within the joint programme.

Creating a common conversion policy

During the third phase of the study, it was key to create an ECTS scale which represented the Engi-neering students at VUB and ULB, based on data from the past five academic years. Two methods to create such an ECTS scale were identified: either to collect the weighted averages of each Master’s student at the time of graduation, or to collect the grades achieved for each course within each pro-gramme. Once all data from the past five academic years was collected, the accumulative and abso-lute frequency of each grade was calculated and distributed in a grading scale table. As a result, a single ECTS scale was created for each university, for each of the five academic years, and for each Master’s Programme. To conclude the research study, a weighted average of the grade conversion tables, based on the number of students registered at VUB and ULB, was calculated and used as a basis for the drafting of the new guidelines for each partner institution.

Finally, VUB and ULB contacted each of their partners to provide them with an ECTS scale represent-ing their students in order to be able to create a comprehensive guideline per partner within the Erasmus+ exchange programme. If the partner was not able to deliver such a table, other significant data was requested, such as a distribution of results or grading table.

Using research to inform policy

Both universities successfully introduced their new conversion policies at the start of 2019–2020, after having been in close dialogue with the exchange coordinators, the outgoing students and the universities’ international offices throughout the process. The new guidelines were widely commu-nicated to the next cohort of students, who positively received the new initiative. With the arrival of the Erasmus+ programme 2021–2027 in the limelight, both VUB and ULB will make it a mandatory condition for partner universities to provide access to their ECTS scales when renewing bilateral agreements. This way, a correct and transparent conversion guideline based on accurate and recent data can be created for each partner institution and shared with students and academics prior to their exchange.

In conclusion, by identifying the problem and conducting a mapping, benchmarking and comparative analysis of past achieved and converted grades, VUB and ULB successfully ensured a transparent and fair conversion policy available to all students, fully in line with the recommendations of the Eu-ropean Commission.

Winter Forum

What areas of internationalisation practice are being supported and streamlined by research? Find out in Winter Forum. Members can access the entire issue and non-members can download the Editor's pick for free.

Pauline de Pelsmacker
Vrije Universiteit Brussel, BelgiumPauline is Internationalisation Coordinator at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium.