Grade inflation: English universities asked to report next year

Move follows agreement over ‘statement of intent’ on tackling issues linked to rise in firsts and 2:1s in UK

May 20, 2019

Each university in England will have to publish the results of an internal review into how they assess students next year as part of attempts to tackle the issue of grade inflation.

The measure comes after UK institutions agreed the wording of a “statement of intent” on how they would work to maintain the value of degrees in light of the huge rise in firsts and 2:1s awarded over the last decade.

As part of the statement, which has been signed by representative bodies including Universities UK, universities have pledged to “review and explain” how they calculate final degree classifications and “publish data and analysis on degree outcomes”.

In England, this will mean each institution carrying out an internal review and publishing “degree outcome statements” next year. The implications for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will vary because they have different quality assurance systems.

The outcome statements in England will have to include a detailed analysis of trends in an institution’s degree results as well as explaining whether there is a “clear and publicly accessible” rationale for the algorithms used for determining students’ final marks.

It follows a major report by sector bodies last year that accepted grade inflation was playing a part in the rise in firsts and 2:1s, which have gone up by more than half in the past 10 years.

In the wake of the report, a consultation was launched on proposals to publish a statement of intent as well as other ways to tackle the problem longer term.

As well as pledging more transparency on degree outcomes and how they are calculated, the statement of intent also calls on institutions to “ensure assessments continue to stretch and challenge students” and to “support and strengthen the external examiners system”.

According to a summary of the consultation results, almost 90 per cent of responses supported the proposal for the statement, although most of them said that it would only tackle the problem “in part”.

The consultation also proposed a description of the degree classification system that could be used as a “shared reference point for institutional assessment criteria” but further work is due to be carried out on this “to address concerns raised during the consultation”.

There was also wide support for talking to domestic league table compilers about how they use metrics on degree marks, but “mixed views” on “developing an alternative classification system or changing classification boundaries”.

Education secretary Damian Hinds welcomed the statement of intent but said it needed to be “followed by action. The Office for Students will use its full powers to challenge those institutions that cannot justify a rise in the proportion of top degrees being awarded, starting from next academic year.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that it was good that universities were working together because this was their “only chance” of getting out of the “last chance saloon on grade inflation” on their own terms.

However, he said that the “only way such a technocratic document can ever be deemed a success is if it leads to clear and demonstrable progress and, for now, the jury is out on whether it goes far enough to deliver that”.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

There are universities which, depending on what will give the student the best classification, will calculate either based on the final 2 years or only the final year grades. I think this is dishonest and playing the system. It should be one or the other for all students graduating in the same course in the same year for consistency and fairness. As for which, there are pros and cons of both. Calculating from 2 years gives a broader picture of how hard the student works, but ultimately their ability in the final year is more important.

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