Is grade inflation weakening the value of higher education?

Brian Poole asks if grade and credential inflation has resulted in too many degree holders chasing too few jobs

January 14, 2019
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When I studied A-level economics at a Yorkshire grammar school in the 1970s, the standard definition of inflation was “too much money chasing too few goods”.

Around the same time, I may have first heard economist J. K. Galbraith’s maxim: “Nothing so weakens government as persistent inflation.” As older readers will recall, price inflation was a major problem in the UK in the 1970s – reaching 20 to 25 per cent – so it was a topic much discussed in my A-level course.

Today, two different but related kinds of inflation – grade inflation and credential inflation – seem to have become a focus of attention in higher education circles. Only a few weeks ago, the Office for Students warned universities in England to curb grade inflation or face fines. But why be concerned about inflation of grades and credentials?

Surely if a higher proportion of graduates receive first-class honours degrees and the number of PhD graduates around the world is rising, these are positive phenomena. It is perfectly possible to see these trends as reflecting the global shift in recent decades away from elite higher education systems towards those that facilitate wider participation, meeting the needs of high-skilled knowledge-based economies.

Well, perhaps. But in a recent article, George Leef, director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in North Carolina, argues otherwise. As he sees it, millions of Americans spend large amounts of time and money getting college degrees yet end up securing jobs that could be done perfectly well without one.

It is also observable that many universities now impose stricter time limits on the completion of PhDs than was formerly the case. As a senior academic at a highly ranked UK university told me recently, “The days of PhD study for love of a subject are long gone.”

Instead, to keep completion time to a minimum (as dictated by internal performance indicators and external quality assurance requirements), PhD students are encouraged to map out slightly less ambitious theses. The students themselves are happy to comply because, like their undergraduate counterparts, they may graduate with substantial debts. The need to find a job and pay these off is imperative.

Thus, university study, at whatever level, is scarcely seen nowadays in terms of moral and cultural development, or of education of the whole person. Instead it has taken on a predominantly vocational slant. For instance, in recent years Universities Australia has been working closely with business groups to ensure that graduates are work-ready to a greater extent, while universities internationally pay ever greater attention to their position in the Global University Employability Rankings.

Driven by the need to do well in various ranking systems and on the basis of self-promotion in the higher education marketplace, universities generate larger numbers of graduates with high grades and top strata degrees, while PhDs (and other doctorates) are pushed to completion more quickly and in greater quantity. Is it any wonder that credential inflation is the result? What we have here may well be “too many certificates chasing too few jobs”. While price inflation implies the weakening of a currency’s purchasing power, credential inflation means the reduction in value of a given certificate.

Several factors might begin to reverse these trends. Leef suggests that employers should consider other things when they scrutinise a job applicant’s CV or conduct an interview. These might include evidence of voluntary work, personality, initiative, language skills and intercultural competence. Certain large companies do indeed do this, placing less emphasis on holding a degree, or on degree classification. Furthermore, the prospect of student debt is already causing some young people to go directly from school to employment.

Thus, undergraduate degrees may be becoming less attractive to both students and employers. And at the level of doctorates, the postdoc phase may continue to assume greater importance for those aspiring to become academics, or there may be ongoing calls for a qualification like the German habilitation degree, the certificate acquired through independent scholarship and required to achieve professorship.

However, I am not convinced that the two types of inflation plaguing higher education will simply evaporate. The pressure is on universities to maximise their recruitment, to see their students succeed and to award them certificates as quickly as possible.

At examination boards, it is possible to hear comments of the following kind: “A nice set of results, but it would be good to see more lower seconds converted into upper seconds.” Yet, to return to Galbraith, perhaps nothing so weakens the value of higher education as persistent inflation.

Brian Poole is associate dean (learning, teaching and research) at Majan University College in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman.

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Reader's comments (3)

you mean all these highly intelligent cream - of - the - crop - intellectual university managers never imagined negative conseqences from awarding the highest grades to average students and average grades to weak or lazy students?
Surely it is increasingly the case that higher education is led by accountants and real-estate developers. Then again, most sectors globally are. I’m sure you’re not suggesting that might be a bad thing?
Brian Poole asks a simple question, and the simple answer is ... YES