Higher education degrees must maintain their currency

More needs to be done to tackle grade inflation and restore public confidence in the value of degrees, says Andrew Wathey

November 28, 2018
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Higher education is rarely out of the headlines, and grade inflation in UK universities remains an issue of significant public debate.

Recent reports in Times Higher Education have highlighted the increase in the proportion of students receiving first or upper second-class degrees, with more than a quarter of graduates receiving first-class degrees in 2016-17 – up from 18 per cent in 2012-13.

Now, three-quarters of students are expected to graduate with firsts or 2:1s. Unless universities take action, it is likely that this proportion will rise further, undermining confidence in the value of a degree from a UK university and rendering the classification system less useful for employers and students.

The UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment, which provides oversight for quality and standards issues in higher education across the UK, is today launching a consultation with recommendations designed to address these challenges.

Such increases are not unique to the UK, and they are to be expected in a system like ours, which judges student performance against criteria rather than awarding a set proportion of degrees at a particular classification.

Students working harder, entering with higher qualifications, and better investment in teaching and learning are all things that may reasonably be expected to improve the proportion of firsts and 2:1s being awarded.

But it is also possible, in view of continued significant increases, that there is an element of inflation as well as genuine improvement. This is concerning for graduates, employers and all those who reasonably expect the system to be reliable, consistent and stable. It is also important to current and future students, who should be confident that the classification of their degrees will maintain its currency.

Today’s consultation is based on a report produced by Universities UK, GuildHE and the Quality Assurance Agency, which have been investigating this issue on behalf of the standing committee.

Universities, colleges, students, employers and others with an interest in this work are invited to respond to a series of proposals focused on improving transparency and understanding of the complex factors involved in determining the classification a student receives.

Crucially, the consultation sets out a draft description of expected student performance at each level of award, from first to third class. This has been developed by UUK, GuildHE and the QAA in consultation with the higher education sector throughout the past year. We want universities to consider whether this represents an accurate description of the expected standards for each award, and, if so, propose that it is used as a common reference point for universities.

The consultation recommends that universities publish and explain the processes that they use to determine a student’s final degree classification. This builds on work undertaken last year by UUK and GuildHE, which found that universities approach these processes very differently. Some differences might arise from pedagogical differences between disciplines. However, this report found clear opportunities to improve consistency.

It is important that universities draw on independent external expertise in designing, delivering and reviewing the processes that they have in place to ensure the standards of the qualifications they award. The consultation asks universities to consider appointing an external academic adviser to provide this expertise and to support university governing bodies in providing oversight of standards.

There is clearly more that can be done to tackle grade inflation and ensure public confidence in the results students receive and the value of their degrees, and these consultation proposals represent a substantial step forward for the higher education sector.

Longer-term measures may also be necessary, including, for example, removing the proportion of students receiving firsts or 2:1s from league tables. The proposals need meaningful consideration and engagement from universities and others with an interest in this work: the standing committee is wholly committed to achieving this through this consultation.

The diversity and autonomy that sit at the heart of UK higher education are among its greatest advantages. But we also believe that effective measures, considered within each provider’s individual context, are needed to respond to the significant challenge that grade inflation poses to public confidence in students’ results and the value of a UK degree.

Andrew Wathey is vice-chancellor of Northumbria University and chair of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: First class must be for high-flyers

Reader's comments (2)

An interesting piece and interesting times. A few comments: It would be good to have some conceptual clarity, across the piece. "Grade inflation" here and elsewhere seems to be used to denote higher outcomes achieved as it were by sleight of hand, as in "there is an element of inflation as well as genuine improvement." I do not think that more descriptions or comparison is going to do any good at all here. This is all about the marketisation and competition in the HE sector. And how about some more bravery and innovation on the part of universities? Where are the universities who will say: - We will cease to call only 2:1s and 1sts "good" degrees - We are awarding so many "good" degrees that we are going to raise the standards and increase the difficulty of our programmes - We need to think again about the external examiner system, which is implicated in all this?
This is a classic collective action problem. All Universities have an interest in curbing grade inflation, but they all have an even greater interest in everyone else curbing inflation while they continue to hand out preposterously generous marks. No-one wants government intervention - just look at the mayhem an interventionist Education Sec causes in schools - and in any case, a national award body would undermine academic freedom, so there seems to be no way to prevent the rise and rise of 1sts and 2:1s. My own suspicion is that a system of 'starred' 1sts, restricted to the top 5%-10% of a cohort would be a reasonable 'solution', as there's no way to roll back the number of 2:1s without jeopardising student numbers. The delay between a decline in 2:1s and employers realising that 2:2s are ok would be too long (spare a thought for people who got 2:2s just before this madness really kicked off...). The problem with my suggested starred 1st system is that it would exacerbate the problem with prestige as it would be restricted to each cohort. In an ideal world, all 1sts would be equal. This would mean that elite universities award more of them than lower ranked univesities, but they'd be an indication of roughly equal achievement. By restricting it to cohort you'd be enshrining institutional prestige with an additional power, but one battle at a time, eh? One further point "entering with higher qualifications" is no rationale for awarding more 2:1s and 1sts - A levels are 'moveable' measures of quality too.

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