OfS opens grade inflation investigations at three providers

Concerns over ‘sharp increase’ in number of firsts and 2.1s awarded warrant ‘further scrutiny’, according to regulator

September 2, 2022
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Three higher education providers are being investigated by the Office for Students over “sharp increases” in the number of first-class and upper second-class degrees they have awarded. 

The OfS – which is not currently naming the institutions involved – said it has identified “potential concerns” that the three are not complying with its regulatory framework.

Under condition B4 of the framework, universities and colleges must assess students effectively, and award qualifications that are “credible compared to those granted previously”.

“Grades should not be inflated so that the same level of student achievement is rewarded with higher degree classifications,” the regulator said. 

Government ministers and the OfS have been increasingly vocal on grade inflation of late, following large increases in the number of top grades awarded across the board over the past decade, a trend that was exacerbated during the pandemic due to “no detriment” policies introduced to ensure students were not disadvantaged by the disruption. 

Earlier this year the regulator published an analysis which showed that the proportion of first class degrees awarded in England has more than doubled, from 15.7 per cent in 2010-11 to 37.9 per cent in 2020-21. It said these proportions “have become a focus for public and sector concern even before the pandemic”.

The OfS said, while improved teaching and assessment methods and student hard work have contributed to better results, 59 per cent of first-class degrees “cannot be explained when compared with performance a decade ago”.

In response, Universities UK and Guild HE made a commitment in July to deflate grades back to 2019 levels in an attempt to restore public confidence that degree classification is a reliable measure of students’ performance.

The OfS stressed that its decision to open investigations meant that the concerns “required further scrutiny” but “should not be interpreted as indicating that any form of wrongdoing has actually taken place in any of the three providers concerned”. It said it expects to publish further details about its investigations in due course.


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Reader's comments (6)

How about the no. of fails? Has it dropped over the years? This might point to a different cause of concern.
It is reasonable that the degree classifications awarded by universities be externally monitored as there needs to be consistency of standards between all universities. Some subjects are accredited by national organisations such as the IET and perhaps there is a role for such organisations to monitor standards in the subjects they are responsible for.
Grade inflation is one of the many inevitable consequences of marketising higher education. I wonder if there might possibly be any correlation between individual student satisfaction scores and grade awarded? *rhetorical Q* We do have to keep our customers happy.
Grade inflation is a UK disease it has happened at A-levels and it has been rampant in UK Universities. It is driven by management teams wanting to keep bums on seats and keep their NSS scores up. Low grades lead to student dissatisfaction in the NSS, so managers put all sorts of pressure on academics to neither fail students (keep the money by passing first year students that woud normally be booted out so you get the revenue in years 2 and 3), avoiding exams wherever possible this enables weak students to get through the system and then give students plenty of time to plagiarise and let each other compare answers in quantitative topics. It is a scandal and the investigation should be widened beyond the three it is a systemic problem, ot is a scandal in which the managers of Universities have played a key role and they need to be held to account.
Agree with 'A_demotivated_academic' and ‘Maverick2’ completely. My institutional managers constantly crow about customer [Oops, student] satisfaction metrics. Yet a very large number of our customer [Oops again, student] body still cannot string three sentences together properly upon graduation. This does not, however, stop them from leaving with firsts and upper seconds. ‘No pain but plenty gain’ – no wonder our NSS scores are so high.
Grade inflation, especially from a fail to a pass, has been serious and destructive in Australia for many years. Too many compliant, unethical academics inflate grades to keep the dean and vice-chancellor happy, and so protect their careers while deceiving students (customers) and their backers into thinking the almost failure-free degree is as good as ever. They do not see it as irresponsible or dishonest to pass students by giving them marks they have not earned. For some soft assessment techniques used to ensure the customers get what they demand, see my article in the Higher Education Supplement of The Australian of 16 March 2011 (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/opinion/weasel-words-and-the-soft-sell/story-e6frgcko-1226022023977). In most Australian business schools, and in other areas of the social sciences in particular, soft assessment is commonplace.


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