The eighties' rise of the good degree

July 3, 1998

YOUR story on grade inflation gives a misleading impression by failing to place university degree results in a wider context ("Dumbing down disproved", THES, June 26).

Although the award pattern has stabilised over the past three years, the proportion of "good" degrees (ie firsts and upper seconds) has risen substantially over 20 years. The real growth occurred in the 1980s when the proportion of good degrees awarded leapt from 32 per cent in 1979 to just under 48 per cent by 1989.

The fact that degree results over the past three years have not altered substantially neither proves nor disproves anything with respect to academic standards. The assumption is often made that the rising proportion of good degrees axiomatically represents a "dumbing down". However, this assumption fails to take account of the possibility that students during the 1980s and 1990s may have simply worked harder to obtain a good degree in a more competitive environment. Another explanation is that the adoption of criterion-referenced assessment has produced a more accurate means of determining student achievement.

Finally, the report states that the rise in firsts and upper-seconds was "revealed" two years ago by the Higher Education Quality Council. My own research findings, published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education in 1992, had already established this.

Bruce Macfarlane Principal lecturer in business and management Canterbury Christ Church College

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