Starred firsts only a ‘temporary’ fix for grade inflation

Academic who has advocated new band of top degree marks now being considered by sector says system still needs ‘fundamental’ reform

December 6, 2018
Boots wrapped in tape
Source: Alamy

Introducing a new band of top marks in UK universities to address grade inflation is a “necessary” step but can only be a short-term fix for a system that is now “fundamentally flawed”, an academic said.

A report by Universities UK, the Quality Assurance Agency and GuildHE that calls for a consultation to look at ways to tackle apparent grade inflation in the sector, suggests that “starred firsts” could be one possible way to address growing difficulties with the country’s degree classification structure.

The share of students achieving firsts has now reached more than a quarter.

The report says that its main recommendations – which include universities being more transparent about how they calculate degree marks – “may not provide a long-term resolution to the sustainability of the degree classification system”.

As a result, it suggests that a sector-wide “task and finish group” be set up to look at wider reform of the grading system including “reviewing the merits of a new classification structure, such as a new top classification, potentially referred to as a starred first, or alternative grading structures”.

Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, who has advocated such a move, said he was “pleased” that starred firsts were now being considered but said deeper issues also had to be addressed.

“It is necessary, but can only be a palliative,” said Professor Smithers. “In the short term it would identify ‘the best of the best’ in the wake of the rampant grade inflation. But it would be a temporary solution to a process which has become fundamentally flawed.”

He said that, unlike nationally assessed school exams like A levels, where a starred category has been used, universities were all individual awarding bodies that had “been trying to outdo each other in giving more and more top degrees for at least the past 15 years”.

This had been exacerbated by the rise in tuition fees and view of students as customers, he added, and institutions’ “irresponsible behaviour” now risked harming their autonomy from government unless they worked together on major reform.

“Fundamentally, they must find ways of upholding standards,” he said.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said he had “always been a little wary of the idea of starred firsts” and A*s were no longer used at GCSE level, “so it would seem a little perverse to adopt it in HE now”.

He argued that more attention should be given to considering a major overhaul such as moving to a grade point average-type system like that used in the US and elsewhere.

“[Grade point average] is definitely worth giving more time to. As the university sector has grown more diverse, with a wider range of institutions and more diverse students, and as the number of employers who employ graduates has grown, the old grading system has come to look a little rough and unsophisticated,” Mr Hillman said.

Some universities already offer starred firsts or distinctions for the top-scoring students, but the methodology for awarding these varies across the sector.

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