Attainment versus grade inflation: which students are caught in the middle?

Sal Jarvis identifies the catch-22 universities can find themselves in as they aim to widen participation and tackle grade inflation

March 18, 2019
Making a decision

Universities work hard to close the attainment gap between black and minority ethnic (BAME) and white students, and between students from more and less privileged backgrounds – but it remains stubbornly wide.

The Office for Students is quite right to expect that all students, from whatever background, should be supported to access, succeed in, and progress from university successfully. The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework makes use of split metrics, which identify the perceptions, continuation rates and employment outcomes of different groups of students, to shine a light on inequalities. But the fact that there is also a TEF metric that seeks to measure and punish grade inflation gives rise to a sharp dilemma: if universities drive forward enhancements that enable more BAME and working-class students to achieve the good degree that they deserve, then the proportion of good degrees will rise, and universities will be penalised for grade inflation. In contrast, if there is no increase in the proportion of good degrees, the gaps will remain, and universities will be penalised for the inequalities. 

This dilemma is sharpest for institutions such as mine, which recruit a high percentage of non-traditional students. And if the sector is not careful then, as we navigate this minefield, somewhere, lost in the middle, is the individual student who is entitled to an excellent education that enables them to achieve their best. 

The TEF is now in its fourth year and currently subject to an independent review led by Dame Shirley Pearce: to what extent will its recommendations successfully navigate the choppy waters between upholding high quality and eliminating these unjustifiable inequalities? Will the TEF ever be able to distinguish grade improvement from grade inflation? 

In the face of such a complex issue, we at the University of Hertfordshire have invested time and money to develop an inclusive culture that enables all our students to succeed. We have a vibrant and diverse student body. More than half our students are from a BAME background; about 40 per cent of our students will be the first in their family to attend university; a similar percentage are not traditional “live away from home” students, but commuters, sometimes travelling long distances to the university or managing caring responsibilities alongside study. Very many of our students – probably most – work in term time to enable them to meet their expenses. We are proud that our TEF gold award explicitly recognised our work to enable outstanding outcomes for all our students, and we continue to strive to remove the institutional barriers that might impede their success. 

We are part of an OfS-funded consortium, which is led by Kingston University and includes De Montfort University, UCL and the universities of Greenwich and Wolverhampton. Its work makes use of Kingston’s value-added metric to explore differences in degree attainment between different groups of students and to stimulate inclusive curricular changes at programme level.

And we believe that institutional change is best developed in partnership, so our staff teams work closely with our students, drawing on their experience and expertise. For example, we employ student BAME advocates – one for each of our academic schools. The activities that they lead are bespoke for each school but include holding focus groups; discussing inclusive practices; challenging assumptions and critiquing the curriculum.

Make no mistake, while we have made good progress towards our goal to eliminate the value-added gaps between different groups of students, at Hertfordshire we still have much to do. But these questions are not just questions for senior leaders in higher education institutions, nor only for course teams, but also for the government and the OfS. How can they ensure that TEF metrics can distinguish grade improvement from grade inflation? If funding for higher education is reduced following the recommendations of the Augar review, how can the government ensure that this doesn’t further widen the HE participation gap?  

When policymakers settle these questions, which place some universities between a rock and a hard place, whose children will they be thinking of? Will changes to fees, funding and the TEF only benefit the already advantaged students whose education has secured high grades and places at prestigious universities? Only those students who require no cultural or other adjustments to university practices to achieve their full potential? Will policymakers be thinking of those students who may look at their lecturers and not see a single person who looks like them or has had their experiences?  

None of us, whether policymakers, university leaders, or lecturers, should be satisfied until each student who comes through universities’ doors is engaged and, subsequently, leaves with a high-quality degree. At the University of Hertfordshire, we are certainly not perfect, but what has worked best for us is collaboration. Can collaboration now, between the sector and the government, secure improvements? Our students are watching, and we must not fail them.

Sal Jarvis is pro vice-chancellor (education and student experience) at the University of Hertfordshire. She will be speaking at the Higher Education Partnership Network event taking place on 30 April and 1 May. 

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: How do we widen access and tackle grade inflation?

Reader's comments (4)

This just highlights the flaws of using simplistic metrics to judge universities. If you are going to use analytics, do it properly or not at all!
What is "a high quality degree" in relation to"each student who comes through universities’ doors" ? The Teaching Excellence Framework seems to have several flaws in the attempt to measure the quality of Teaching. Perhaps the concept of Value Added for each individual student might be a more appropriate measure?
"Can collaboration now, between the sector and the government, secure improvements?" Well we had co-regulation, but the Government did away with that with HERA. And many of the sector bodies put up little fight.
Currently about 80% of all graduate students get a first or 2-1 and about 25% get a first. When 100% get a first there will no longer be any attainment gap and the system can then be considered fully inclusive with no gaps between the various student groups deemed to have a unique group identity.

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