Combating grade inflation requires a collective response from universities

A consultation of UK universities shows they are committed to protecting the value of degree qualifications, says Janet Beer

三月 25, 2019
deflating hot air balloon
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The UK is home to some of the most-respected higher education institutions in the world, with four of the top 10 rated universities, pioneering research and recognised excellence in teaching. Our universities are one of our great treasures and great exports. Which is what makes it all the more important that students, their parents and future employers can have confidence in the value of a degree. The debate around grade inflation – improvements in grades across time that can’t clearly be accounted for – risks undermining this confidence. But universities haven’t been ignoring this debate.

There is overwhelming support from universities to ensure public confidence in the results that students get. While some genuine grade improvement is to be expected, particularly as universities have increasingly focused on improving teaching and learning techniques, universities recognise that any unjustifiable rises in firsts and upper second-class degrees could undermine our world-class university system. They know it is essential that the public has faith in the value of a degree and confidence that UK university degrees stretch and challenge students to achieve their full potential.

In November 2018, Universities UK published a report on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment, outlining a number of measures to protect the value of qualifications over time.

These include creating a sector-wide statement of intent, committing universities to providing complete transparency, fairness and reliability in the way they award degrees. Other proposed measures involve publishing degree outcomes in a statement that will allow the university’s governing body to easily review degree results; agreeing common criteria to describe the quality of work required to achieve each degree level; and an explanation of how all of their scoring systems work, ultimately justifying any discrepancies.

The response to this report, and the following consultation, has been overwhelmingly positive, and it couldn’t be plainer that universities are taking this seriously. There have been more than 130 responses to the consultation, and we have also seen over 160 attendees at the five workshops that have been run across Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland to reflect on this important issue. The vast majority of universities support the proposed statement of intent, which will provide a framework for a UK-wide sector-led response. The collective will to protect the value of qualifications is strong.

At the moment, it is not possible to pinpoint one cause of grade inflation. It is complex issue because of the breadth of courses and the rich variety of subject choice – which also make comparison difficult. It is also important that we draw a distinction between grade inflation and grade improvement, where increased investment in teaching and facilities, as well as students working harder than ever, are leading to legitimate increases in grades. We must not allow the questions raised by this debate to halt efforts to ensure that every student, whatever their background or ethnicity, has the opportunity to get the best outcome from their programme of study – a priority that the government and the Office for Students share with us.

This consultation has helped universities to consider this difficult issue and to demonstrate their willingness to make changes. If we want the UK to continue to be seen as one of the best places in the world to study, there can be no room for complacency.

Dame Janet Beer president of Universities UK.



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