Almost half of universities have changed how they calculate their degree classifications in the past five years to ensure that students do not get lower grades on average than those at rival institutions.
The Higher Education Academy found that 47 per cent of institutions it surveyed had changed their degree algorithms since 2010 to “ensure that their students were not disadvantaged compared to those in other institutions”. Some 70 per cent of graduates achieved at least a 2:1 in 2013-14 compared with 63 per cent in 2009-10, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
The different ways to calculate overall student grades, which can affect a university’s league table position, often revolve around whether institutions should disregard the weakest marks achieved by students when calculating their final degree classification or give a higher weighting to final-year marks.
The finding of the HEA research on external examining is mentioned in a draft policy paper seen by Times Higher Education on how to safeguard academic standards.
The document, the final version of which is set to be published shortly by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, says that those in higher education are “comfortable” with current methods to maintain standards, but that “those outside the sector are more sceptical”. There is little evidence of an “effective counter-narrative to regular press claims of ‘grade inflation’”, adds the paper, Future Approaches to Quality Assessment – England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
It says that universities should set up a task force to determine a “sensible range of possible classification algorithms”, with guidelines needed around the 2:1-2:2 borderline.
As part of the proposals for quality assurance in the draft report, regular institutional reviews undertaken by the Quality Assurance Agency would be scrapped and universities would be monitored every five years via information submitted on student outcomes, such as satisfaction scores.
The draft paper also proposes the creation of a register of external examiners overseen by an external body, which would have responsibility for training staff.
Examiners within a subject community should come together to “compare their students’ work and to judge student achievement against the standards set in order to improve comparability and consistency”, it says. Those “calibration of degree standard” groups could involve subject associations, regional clusters of subject specialists or professional organisations, although awarding bodies would still decide final marks.
A three-month consultation will begin once the final document is published, with proposals set to take effect in full from 2017-18.