As the academies warn that research capability is under threat, Colin Lawson suggests ways to protect standards in teaching. In the past 20 years the most likely degree grade has risen in many subjects from 2:2 to 2:1, according to a study by the Higher Education Quality Council.
The review covered eight disciplines and was confined to the pre-1992 universities. A new report from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that this result is general across the system, with 41 per cent of 1994/95 degrees being upper seconds, and 35 per cent lower seconds. The unspoken fear is that standards have fallen: that grade inflation accounts for much of the apparent improvement. The focus of the HEQC announcement was, naturally, on the future and on quality assurance but the council's director of quality enhancement, Robin Middlehurst, was quoted as saying that nobody wanted a national curriculum.
This is a mistake because, although there are possible counter-arguments, it seems likely that there has been significant grade inflation, and a scheme involving a core curriculum and national examinations could minimise such problems in future. This would enable employers to compare graduate quality across universities and could help attract overseas students.
The most important factor in grade inflation is the obvious fact that our students need better degrees than their predecessors. But establishing the probability of increased student pressure for higher grades does not mean that staff have succumbed to that pressure. Indeed, the main suspicion for the existence of a problem lies in the fact that during recent years grades did not fall. The HEQC study shows that they increased, despite an 80 per cent increase in the number of students over the last 12 years, and about a 40 per cent increase in the student-staff ratio. In addition, the research selectivity exercise has increased the emphasis on research, and lower contact hours have been used to attract high-quality researchers. In other words, the facts that we have educated a broader spectrum of ability and have had a lot less resources per student to do it would lead us to expect a lower proportion of good degrees in the distribution.
It is also possible that if a higher proportion of good degrees has been felt to reflect credit on a department, this may have been a factor in grade inflation.
There are however some factors which may have worked against the conclusion that there has been grade inflation. Students not only need better grades; they may work harder and more effectively to get them. Also the teaching quality exercises may have improved the standard of teaching, though it seems to have done little to raise its status in the profession. Perhaps more significant is the fact that the 2:1/2:2 borderline runs through the most populous part of the ability distribution. A small increase in average scores will therefore generate a large increase in 2:1 degrees.
Although there are some legitimate reasons why we might have expected to see some increase in the proportion of 2:1 degrees, my view is that the countervailing factors are likely to have been stronger. That is, if absolute standards had remained unchanged since 1974, we would have expected to see a fall, not a rise, in the proportion of good degrees. For that reason I suspect that there has been a significant amount of grade inflation. We need to continue investigating the reasons for the relative rise in good degrees, but we also need to construct an assessment system which is clearly seen to be resistant to grade inflation, without stifling the genuine appearance of general changes in performance, by forcing the results into a preassigned distribution.
In at least half of the courses for a degree we need a core curriculum and national examinations. In economics, for example, the key topics of microeconomics, macroeconomics and the statistical testing of theories could be in such a core system.
Non-core subjects could be examined at a departmental level. This system would provide a strong defence against grade inflation, though the experience of A-level boards suggests the need for a preferably separate monitoring system to check the performance of national examiners. The widespread and unhappy perception of different standards between the various A-level boards suggests that we should have only one national examining body.
A national system would enable us to make an objective assessment of the relative performance of universities. This would focus universities' attention on teaching effectiveness and the relative provision of resources. At present all manner of claims of success and justifications for unequal resource distribution can be tested with little more than assertions and faith.
The proposed system would also allow externals to focus on any significant drift in the departmentally assessed papers away from the same students' national results. Justifying and disputing any such significant differences would be a far more effective exercise in standards comparability than the present entirely subjective exercises. All the other functions of externals could be retained, as of course could be the diverse degree schemes. There would be considerable economies of scale in setting some papers but there would be some additional costs and it is not obvious that there would be any net savings.
But it is clear that the scheme would give Britain an opportunity to provide a benchmark against which to judge performance. If we believe that we are still international leaders in undergraduate education, then we should certify students nationally, strive to improve their performance, and proclaim that we have done so. The present haphazard self-certification is reducing, not increasing, our international standing.
There will be many tricky details to settle. Examinations will have to be synchronised, the coursework component agreed, the marking load distributed, the range of appropriate textbooks assessed. But the great potential advantages of the scheme should vastly outweigh these start-up costs.
Colin Lawson is senior lecturer in economics at the University of Bath.