English universities pledge to reverse grade inflation

First-of-its-kind commitment promises return to 2019 levels of first- and upper-second-class degrees

July 5, 2022
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Universities in England have made a first-of-its-kind commitment to reversing grade inflation after admitting that the spiralling number of first-class degrees risks undermining confidence in the sector.

After coming under pressure from the regulator, members of Universities UK (UUK) and GuildHE have given themselves until 2023 to bring the number of “upper” degrees awarded back in line with what they were in 2019.

A statement published by the two bodies acknowledged that measures including “no detriment” policies brought in to ensure students were not disadvantaged by the Covid-19 crisis – though “appropriate and proportionate” at the time – contributed to an increase in the number of students receiving the top grades.

More than a third of undergraduates (37.9 per cent) received a first-class degree in 2020-21 – up from 15.7 per cent in 2010-2011 – while 47 per cent achieved a 2.1, according to an analysis released earlier this year by the Office for Students.

While improved teaching and assessment methods and student hard work have contributed to better results, the OfS found that 59 per cent of first-class degrees cannot be explained when compared with performance a decade ago.

UUK and GuildHE’s statement said “meaningful action” needed to be taken to address the increases that are not the result of better practices.

“Students, employers and the public need to feel confident that degree classification is a reliable measure of students’ performances,” it added.

Steve West, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, said that while students who have graduated over the past three years should continue to have confidence in the qualifications they achieved, the country’s emergence from the pandemic was a chance to look to the future and “strengthen our commitment to fair, transparent and reliable degree classification”.

UUK and GuildHE’s statement pointed to universities’ work to protect the value of degrees before the pandemic hit, which they said was having an impact. In 2018-19, the proportion of firsts rose from 29 to 30 per cent before shooting up to 36 per cent in 2019-20, when lockdowns and other measures severely disrupted the end of the academic year.

In attempting to return to this benchmark, members will publish “degree outcome statements” by the end of 2022, which will include actions on how they intend to achieve the goal.

Higher education minister Michelle Donelan, who has previously said grade inflation “has to stop”, said she was “delighted” with the “landmark statement”, which she described as the “first time ever” that universities have made such a commitment.

“Hard-working students deserve to know that earning a first or upper second really counts, and that it carries weight with employers – who in turn should be able to trust in the high value and rigorous assessment of university courses,” she added.

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (8)

About bloody time... (i) Remove compensated passes. If universities want to include compensated passes, then also include a process to downward adjust borderline distinctions etc for consistency. (ii) Include *all* re-sit/re-assessment attempts in the calculation of the final grade. Previous attempts can be weighted less (e.g., 0.5) than the final attempt but should still be included in the computation of the final grade. (iii) *All* re-assessment attempts should be reported in the results transcript so that employers know how many attempts had been made by the student. (iv) Results transcripts should include some information about the module's grade distribution and variance so that employers can identify modules that have severe grade inflation. This is to identify 'easy' or graded-inflated modules/programmes (e.g., modules with a high mean and a narrow variance). (v) Develop an education culture in the UK that maintains and improves rather than degrades educational standards (e.g., English proficiency not important in marking at the University of Hull, exam/test scores are not important in teaching and learning).
About bloody time... (i) Remove compensated passes. If universities want to include compensated passes, then also include a process to downward adjust borderline distinctions etc for consistency. (ii) Include *all* re-sit/re-assessment attempts in the calculation of the final grade. Previous attempts can be weighted less (e.g., 0.5) than the final attempt but should still be included in the computation of the final grade. (iii) *All* re-assessment attempts should be reported in the results transcript so that employers know how many attempts had been made by the student. (iv) Results transcripts should include some information about the module's grade distribution and variance so that employers can identify modules that have severe grade inflation. This is to identify 'easy' or graded-inflated modules/programmes (e.g., modules with a high mean and a narrow variance). (v) Develop an education culture in the UK that maintains and improves rather than degrades educational standards (e.g., English proficiency not important in marking at the University of Hull, exam/test scores are not important in teaching and learning).
In other news, REF shows no sign of grade inflation at all. Maybe this isnt grade inflation.. it is just that all these brilliant students are being taught by ever more brilliant academics.
When I was an undergraduate in the 1970's, the most common degree classifications obtained were 2(i) and 2(ii). Very few students (around 10%) graduated with a first. I remember that there was one graduating class when no firsts were awarded. Now, 37.9% of students are awarded a first. In my experience as an academic, students work very hard, but no harder than when I was a student. One way of looking at the stats is to say that there are too many firsts awarded now. Another way of looking at this is to say that there were too few firsts awarded in the old days. One thing for sure is that standards in awarding degrees have significantly changed; whether this is good or bad is something to be debated!
It is a scandal how managers in Universities have delibarately allowed grade inflation to take place. They have done this to keep the money flowing in and avoid student complaints. They have done their best to abolish exams wherever possible to save money, also abolishing exams wherever possible means even the weakest students survive who would normallly be kicked out in year 1. Guess what ? That means more income as these enter years 2 an 3 ! The managers by avoiding exams have allowed rampant cheating and collusion among students to take place, to which academics generally turn a blind eye as there are so many cases that reporting them would invove way too much time, paperwork and proof levels are hard to achieve. Covid related extenuating circumstances are rampant and managers even allow compensation so that failed exams can be ignored. The stats show there is rampant grade inflation and the managers that allowed this need to be held to account.
Where is investigative journism when you need it?
In the absence of any meaningful, national,"control" over what grades individual Universities chose to allocate to individual students taking a degree, it is not surprising that employers and the general public, see the situation as a sad joke. There is no National Standard Degree, as there is with Apprenticeship Standards and End Point Assessments. Attempts at "fairness" in grading, whether they are based on a fixed percentage of students getting a first, 2.1, 2.2 etc from year to year, or tutor grades (as used for A levels) are pointless. Nothing we can think of can remove the bias/ randomness/ error,created by individual "markers" of the individual papers at Individual Universities. It is, and will forever be, a lucky lottery, like so many things in life. We just have to live with inequality and diversity.
Some academics dumb down their course and award high scores to retain module/course popularity among students. Sad but true.

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