Just as it seemed that the annual outcry over the number of first-class degrees awarded was not going to surface this year, new allegations of dumbing down and "a plague of plagiarism" have fanned the flames of controversy over grade inflation.
An inquiry into higher education by the House of Commons' Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee has provided the accusers with the perfect public platform from which to preach. Our universities will be condemned, they say, unless "inspectors" are brought in to deal with plagiarism, overgenerous marking, lax admissions thresholds and other evils.
As I gave evidence to the inquiry last week, I began to wonder whether we are allowing a vocal minority to blow up largely unsubstantiated claims out of all proportion. Of course there is no question that the sector must continue to uphold the very high standards that have made our honours degree system the envy of the world. It is in our own interests to be rigorous in this respect, because we do not want to lose our valuable position in the global market.
But how much evidence is there that the sector is allowing standards to slide? Open a public inquiry and you can almost guarantee to receive numerous submissions. The key question is how many of them have supporting evidence, and how many come from people with personal axes to grind.
So far in this debate there has been little mention of the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. These showed no rise in the proportion of graduates gaining first-class and upper-second-class honours. Moreover, no one has asked why, if the UK degree is being devalued, there has been no impact on applications from international students who are all tuning in to internet chatter about where to study on a daily basis.
On a more positive note, I was pleased to see a silver lining emerge from the largely gloomy evidence presented to the inquiry. The consensus of opinion among higher education leaders called to give evidence appears to be supportive of moves to modernise the way we present the achievement of students. There seems to be broad acceptance that degree classifications alone cannot provide the level of information that students and prospective employers need to demonstrate what has been learnt, achieved and experienced during the course of a degree programme.
In October 2007, the Burgess group, which I chaired, recommended the introduction of a Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear), to address the fact that the summative judgment thresholds of first, upper second, lower second and so on detract from information that conveys a fuller understanding of the skills and knowledge acquired by students.
With piloting of Hear under way, it was encouraging to read declarations of support for the initiative from across the sector. It has strengthened my conviction that there is every reason to expect that the pilot will lead to sector-wide adoption of Hear by 2010-11. One of the challenges we face is how to keep the transcript from becoming too long, as it may contain information on a student's strengths and weaknesses in particular modules, and what skills and qualities they have developed through project work, dissertations, seminars, presentations and examinations.
Another exciting but challenging aspect of Hear is that there will be scope for even more details, such as extracurricular activities, volunteering, work experience and professional recognition that can be verified by universities. The pilot will explore some difficult issues, including how to record these areas and how to further develop the existing Student Record with the assistance of the Centre for Recording Achievement, the Higher Education Academy and the Joint Information Systems Committee.
By the end of the pilot period we should have developed a system for recording student achievement that will satisfy all stakeholders. Degree classifications may decline in importance, but anyone who thinks that will mean more "dumbing down" should consider that it will also be easier to see what students have done to deserve the grades they have been awarded.