Grade inflation ‘brakes have been applied’ in England

Report from OfS shows slowing in rise of ‘unexplained’ firsts and sudden drops in share gaining top honours at some institutions

November 19, 2020
Source: iStock/Tony Studio

“Unexplained” rises in the share of students in England getting a first-class degree have slowed down, with some universities seeing sudden drops in the proportion gaining top honours, the latest data show.

According to an analysis published by the Office for Students, of the 29.5 per cent of students who got a first in 2018-19, 14.3 percentage points could not be explained by changes in the characteristics of graduating cohorts since 2010-11 such as better prior attainment.

Although this still means that the increase in the share of firsts since 2010-11 cannot be explained by such factors, the unexplained portion only rose 0.4 percentage points from 2017-18, a marked slowdown on previous years.

Some of the sector-wide changes could have been driven by sudden shifts in the share of firsts being awarded at some institutions that previously had very high proportions of top degrees.

For instance, at the University of Surrey, where the share of students receiving a first reached 50 per cent in 2016-17, the proportion gaining top honours fell to a third in 2018-19 from 45 per cent in 2017-18. 

Other universities saw a substantial drop in the share of firsts in 2018-19 after years of trending upwards, such as at the University of Salford (35.2 per cent in 2017-18, 28.7 per cent in 2018-19), Nottingham Trent University (26 per cent to 18.5 per cent), Edge Hill University (31.1 per cent to 26 per cent) and the University of Liverpool (31.7 per cent to 27.6 per cent).

These were all universities where the “unexplained” element in the awarding of firsts also fell significantly in 2018-19. All in all, there were 38 institutions where this happened, according to the OfS.

However, 108 providers still saw increases in the unexplained attainment for first-class degrees relative to the sector average and their own previous grading levels.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said while overall the data suggested “that the brakes have been applied” on grade inflation, it was “clear” that it “remains a significant and pressing issue in English higher education”. 

“It is correct to say that a permanent solution will require continuing collective action from universities over a period of time. Ultimately though, universities are individually accountable for meeting the OfS’ regulatory requirements in this area,” she added.

“Where we have concerns about unexplained grade inflation at any particular university or college, we are prepared to intervene to protect the integrity of the degree-awarding system for all students.”

As well as its core analysis, the report also contains new work looking at whether some of the rise in the share of firsts could be attributed to a change in A-level grading policy in 2010 that some say has masked an increase in entrants’ ability.

The OfS found that attempting to account for this did cut the unexplained increase in the share of firsts by 11.9 percentage points, but this still left “strong evidence of significant unexplained sector attainment increases”.

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