In 1995, 8 per cent of students left university with a first-class honours degree. By 2013, the figure had risen to 18 per cent, and last year the figure rose again: an astonishing 26 per cent of students now leave with firsts, more than end up with lower-seconds. Some universities seem to have abandoned all sense of proportion: last year, Imperial College London awarded firsts to 45 per cent of students, while the figure for the University of Surrey was 44 per cent. No one seriously believes that this is because the calibre of graduating students is improving. It is, unfortunately, an inevitable consequence of a market-driven higher education system, in which universities compete with each other to attract the best students, and in which students rely on league tables and rankings to make their choices.
Last summer, Jo Johnson, who was then the higher education minister, announced a crackdown on grade inflation, saying that it would be a priority for the new Office for Students. Universities UK has now revealed that it intends to tackle the problem, in collaboration with the Quality Assurance Agency, GuildHE and the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment.
The first part of its work will be to clarify how the sector defines degree classifications. Universities UK intends to produce a reference document by September that will “aid the transparency and consistency of approaches to degree classification and standards across the sector”.
UUK discusses the need to distinguish between grade inflation and genuine improvement in student performance. It suggests two ways of striking a balance between inflation and recognising improvement: one is “to adjust standards to keep up with increasingly successful students in a way that is transparent and consistent, either through criteria or quotas”. The other, it says, “is to find more headroom in the classification structure, either by reinvigorating the 2:2 and third classifications in the eyes of employers or bringing in a new classification above the first”.
Neither of these options is workable. The idea of applying quotas across subjects and institutions is clearly unfair and will inevitably be resisted by vice-chancellors, academics and students. Similarly, the notion that it’s possible to apply fixed criteria to institutions with wildly differing histories, priorities and student intake is fanciful. Degrees are not like A levels: institutions cherish their independence and their ability to set their own curriculum and assessment methods. As for persuading employers of the value of 2:2s or thirds, well, good luck with that.
Bringing in a new classification above the first simply kicks the problem further into the future, where no doubt we will see complaints that more and more students are achieving starred firsts (or whichever new classification is introduced).
In a market-driven system, is a solution possible? We need universities themselves to recognise that there is a problem. The greatest difficulty facing the grading system is that the role of the external examiner has been diminished: it is hard to recruit well-qualified candidates because it is such a frustrating, time-consuming role without obvious rewards in terms of career advancement.
In 1997, the Dearing report recommended the creation of a UK-wide pool of academic staff from which universities should select external examiners – an idea that was revived in 2009 by parliament’s Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee. The committee also recommended that external examiners should have access to a national remit that would document, for example, the extent to which they could amend marks. These recommendations have never been acted on, with the result that universities make their own, vastly differing arrangements for external examiners.
The creation of such a pool, with an agreed remit, would at least be a step in the right direction, enabling external examiners to rein in the extremes of grade inflation while also imposing some degree of comparability across universities.
The relentless drive towards marketisation of higher education, with universities engaged in battle to attract students, has led inevitably to unsustainable grade inflation. Introducing quotas or tinkering with classifications is not going to address that. We should not pretend that a first-class degree has the same value, independent of the institution that awards it. We can, however, introduce more rigour into the system through the creation of a pool of examiners and a clear remit that they should adhere to.
Tim Horder is emeritus fellow at Jesus College, University of Oxford, and a member of the Council for the Defence of British Universities executive committee.