Grades gap grows at top universities

October 12, 2007

The proportion of good honours degrees awarded to undergraduates is accelerating faster at top Russell Group universities than within other university groups, writes Rebecca Attwood.

New research, which comes just ahead of the Burgess Group's final report on reform of the degree-classification system, shows a widening gap between the research-intensive Russell Group and other institutions when it comes to the number of firsts and 2.1 degrees awarded.

The high entry standards of research-intensive universities is reflected in the high proportion of good degrees they award.

But an analysis of eight years' worth of data, to be published in Mantz Yorke's forthcoming book, Grading Student Achievement in Higher Education , shows that the discrepancy in degree outcome is growing.

Among Russell Group institutions, ten out of 16 universities have seen a statistically significant rise in the proportion of firsts and 2.1s awarded in half or more subject areas between 1994-95 and 2001-02. This compares with just two out of 37 post-92 universities and with one out of 34 non-Russell Group pre-92 institutions.

In humanities subjects, for example, the proportion of students getting good degrees at Russell Group universities rose from 72.5 per cent to 82 per cent, while in computer science it went from 49.7 per cent to 63.9 per cent.

The results are likely to provide new ammunition for those who believe the degree classification system is in need of reform.

In January, figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that, for the first time, 60 per cent of graduates across the sector gained first or upper second-class degrees in 2005-06.

In his book, Professor Yorke, visiting professor at the department of educational research at Lancaster University, argues for "radical reform" of the current system, which the Burgess Group has declared "no longer fit for purpose".

But Professor Yorke warned against making any assumptions about "grade inflation". He said that the reasons behind the improving results were complex and they could include grading practices, and changes in curriculum design or demographic shifts.

Wendy Piatt, director of the Russell Group, said: "As Professor Yorke himself points out, rising grades do not necessarily indicate 'grade inflation'." She added: "Research shows - and Professor Yorke's analysis backs this - that there is a strong correlation between entry qualifications and degree results. The increase in the percentage of Russell Group students gaining first and 2.1 degrees between 1994 and 2002 correlates with a rise in the entrants' qualifications and an increase in standards at the time the Russell Group was established."

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