Jo Johnson has warned that grade inflation is “ripping through English higher education”, setting out plans for the teaching excellence framework and the sector’s new regulator to tackle the problem.
The universities and science minister also said in his speech to the Universities UK conference that there would be other changes to the TEF, including the halving of the weighting of the National Student Survey in its metrics.
Following the speech, the Department for Education published a TEF policy paper on "lessons learned" from the last exercise, giving detail on the changes outlined by the minister.
Mr Johnson said as long ago as 2015 that the TEF would tackle grade inflation, but he is now firming up those plans.
The minister’s plans to give the Office for Students, the English sector’s new regulator, powers over vice-chancellors’ pay had already been trailed to the media prior to the speech.
Mr Johnson told his audience of vice-chancellors at Brunel University London that he agreed with other observers that “UK universities are under intense scrutiny”.
He said that while student finance “played a prominent role in the general election campaign”, since then “the question of whether universities are providing students with a fair deal has become ever more pressing”.
Mr Johnson criticised the “statists” who want to return to publicly-funded higher education (as Labour has committed to) as well as setting out a lengthy argument against the “pessimists”, who “argue that university is inappropriate for many students, that student numbers should be significantly reduced and that students should pursue other types of post-18 education”. The minister’s comments may suggest he senses pressure from some in government to reduce the numbers entering university.
“If universities offer patchy teaching that does not seem to justify students’ fees or degrees courses that end up with significant numbers of graduates in non-graduate jobs, those critics who mistakenly call for big reductions in student numbers will feel the wind in their sails,” he also said.
Moving on to the TEF, Mr Johnson said the weighting of NSS metrics would be halved, giving it “a more proportionate place in the assessment”.
The minister also said that while “benchmarking will remain at the heart of TEF assessment, we will be explicitly indicating where providers have very high or very low absolute values, and allowing this to inform initial hypotheses where there are no flags”.
Proceeding to outline new “supplementary metrics”, Mr Johnson said there would be a “new measure designed to tackle grade inflation” and also one based on the Longitudinal Education Outcomes dataset on graduate earnings.
“Grade inflation is ripping through English higher education,” said Mr Johnson. He referred to Hesa figures showing that in the last five years the proportion of students who gained a first-class degree has increased by over 40 per cent, with almost a quarter of students now securing the top grade, up from 17 per cent in 2011-12.
In addition to a new TEF metric, Mr Johnson said the OfS would “work with the sector” on grade inflation. “Unchecked, grade inflation will undermine the reputation of the entire UK HE sector, creating a dangerous impression of slipping standards, undermining the efforts of those who work hard for their qualifications and poorly serving the needs of employers,” Mr Johnson said.
The forthcoming regulatory framework consultation will propose that the OfS will “analyse and routinely publish annual data on the number of degrees awarded at different classifications – at the sector and provider level, and the changes that occur over time – and the OfS will challenge providers to explain data that suggests that students’ degree classifications are being inflated,” he added.
The TEF supplementary metric “will recognise providers who are genuinely tackling grade inflation, and hold to account those who are not,” he said.
Taking questions from journalists afterwards, he said the grade inflation metric would aim to “provide additional information to the panel of assessors to enable them to take into account” cases where an institution’s degrees “appear not to be holding their value over time and where there appears to be significant degree inflation”.
He said that as a supplementary metric it would contribute to the TEF panel’s “overall dataset that they get in order to form an initial hypothesis”.
On accelerated degrees, Mr Johnson said he would launch a consultation exploring the possibility of introducing higher in-year fee caps for shorter courses.
Setting out the pre-trailed proposals for the OfS to use powers on vice-chancellors’ pay, Mr Johnson referred to comments made by University of Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson. “I have heard in recent days one prominent v-c noting she was paid less than footballers or bankers,” he said. “If university managers want those kinds of wages, they are simply in the wrong business.”
Urging the sector to act on the issue, he added: “I do not want to read about v-c pay in the newspapers any more than you do.”