English sector ‘not out of the woods’ on grade inflation

Half of firsts cannot be explained by changes in prior attainment or choice of subject, sector regulator claims, although this is down from Covid-era peak

July 20, 2023
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The proportion of students awarded “unexplained” top grades has fallen from its peak during the pandemic, but the sector is “not out of the woods” yet, the English regulator has warned.

About a third (32.8 per cent) of students received a first-class degree in 2021-22, according to an annual report by the Office for Students (OfS) – down from a record high of 37.4 per cent the year before.

The annual study claimed that half of those firsts (16.4 per cent) could not be explained by changes in students’ prior attainment or choice of subject when compared with students’ attainment more than a decade ago.

This was down from 21.2 per cent “unexplained” top grades in 2020-21 and 21 per cent in 2019-20, but still above the 15 per cent in the last year before the Covid-19 pandemic impacted assessment.

The report, which looked at 144 higher education providers, found that a first or a 2:1 was achieved by 79.6 per cent of the student body – with 10.7 per cent classed as “unexplained” by statistical modelling.

Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the OfS, said the findings showed that progress was being made in tackling the grade inflation seen over the past decade.

“But we’re not out of the woods yet, as half of first-class degrees cannot be explained by students’ entry qualifications or the subject of study,” she said.

“Inflation of grades that does not reflect actual student achievement is bad for students, graduates and employers, and risks undermining the reputation of English higher education in the UK and beyond.

“We are encouraged to see a reduction in the proportion of unexplained top grades, but universities and colleges know that they need to continue to take the steps necessary to protect the value of their qualifications, now and over time.”

For first-class degrees, the recent changes in unexplained attainment vary considerably at individual universities and colleges, ranging from a 15.9 percentage point increase to a 31.9 percentage point decrease at particular higher education providers.

Almost all (99 per cent) of the 144 institutions examined had a proportion of firsts that could not be explained by various observable factors that might affect their attainment.

In a statement published a year ago, UK universities pledged to bring the proportion of firsts and 2:1s being awarded back into line with 2019 levels, acknowledging that the rise in top grades during the pandemic risked undermining confidence in the sector.

The OfS study also looked at how grades varied depending on students’ prior qualifications, finding that all types received fewer firsts compared with 2020-21.

In 2021-22, 56.2 per cent of students who entered higher education with A-level grades of AAA and above received a first-class degree, down from 60.7 per cent in 2020-21 but well above 33.6 per cent in 2010-11.

Students who received AAB experienced the largest increase in first-class degrees between 2020-21 and 2021-22, doubling from 22.6 per cent to 47.1 per cent.

Ms Lapworth said there was likely to be a range of factors – including improved teaching – that could lead to an increase in the number of firsts awarded.

“But the sustained increase in unexplained firsts and 2:1s since 2010-11 continues to cause us concern,” she said.

“Students, graduates and employers must have confidence that degrees awarded represent a reliable assessment of achievement, with qualifications remaining credible throughout a student’s career.”

The OfS has launched regulatory investigations at a number of universities into the rise in top degrees being awarded.

But institutions have raised concerns about the cost of retaining all students’ marked work in case they become the subject of a probe.

A Universities UK spokeswoman said that institutions were “rowing back” on pandemic-era increases in the number of higher degrees awarded, but said that the OfS should intervene only where it found that classification standards had been “compromised”.

“This research must be careful not to assume that those with lower entry grades, typically from more disadvantaged backgrounds, cannot achieve first-class degrees. Some of the improvements are certain to be attributable to increased investment into teaching from universities, and the hard work of students,” the spokeswoman said.


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Reader's comments (1)

It seems really poor to link the grade you acheive in your honours course to your entry qualifications . This is such a bad measure and arrogant saying your life course or attainment capabilities are set by a very narrow one off high pressure exam. On that basis, we might as well not do end of degree exams. Students mature, become more self reliant, find new areas they which they can excel in.