Rise in firsts ‘unexplained’ at most English universities

Office for Students head says ‘spiralling grade inflation’ must be tackled after latest figures show universities with most explaining to do on issue

December 19, 2018
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Nearly three-quarters of English universities have had a “significant” and “unexplained” rise in the share of graduates achieving a first, according to a new report.

At six universities, more than a fifth of graduates received one of these “unexplained” firsts last year, according to a study by the Office for Students, whose head said that it would take action unless institutions found a way to bring “spiralling grade inflation” under control.

In a similar way to a study commissioned by bodies including Universities UK last month, the OfS report controls for some factors that could have influenced grading changes, such as improved entry standards or students’ social background.

Unlike the previous study – which covered grading across the UK – it concentrates only on English students studying in England but it comes to a similar conclusion that the rise in firsts in recent years is largely unexplained by such factors.

“The modelling predicts that there should be little variation in the proportion of students attaining first and upper second-class degrees between 2010-11 and 2016-17, meaning that the sector-level increase of 11.6 percentage points in first-class degree attainment over this time period cannot be explained by these factors alone,” the study says.

It leaves open the possibility that other factors – such as improvements in teaching or students working harder – could be a cause. However, the findings are still likely to provide fuel to critics who believe that less benign factors, such as increased competition for students, are to blame.

The report provides data on how this unexplained increase in firsts varies between institutions, with 105 (71 per cent) being flagged “as showing unexplained graduate attainment [in 2016-17] significantly above that of the sector in 2010-11”.

Among universities, the University of Surrey had the biggest share of “unexplained” firsts in 2016-17. It awarded a first to half its English students last year, but the report says that more than half of these could not be explained by factors used in the model, such as rising entry standards in the sector.

Jane Powell, vice-provost for education and students at Surrey, said that the number of firsts awarded at the institution reflected “a combination of factors, including major investments in high-quality teaching, resources and academic support”.

She added that a high proportion of students – who were disproportionately represented in the cohort analysed by the OfS – also undertook a professional training year, something that tended to lead to better performance in final exams.

“We continue to recognise the importance of ensuring that all assessments are sufficiently stretching, and are currently undertaking a review to ensure that this is the case,” Professor Powell said.

Elsewhere the report also confirms a trend first reported earlier this year that the rise in the number of top degrees being awarded has been greater for students who started university with lower grades. For instance, graduates who entered higher education with grades below CCD at A level or equivalent “were almost three times more likely to receive a first-class degree in 2016-17 than they were in 2010-11”.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said that the report “shows starkly that there has been significant and unexplained grade inflation since 2010-11. This spiralling grade inflation risks undermining public confidence in our higher education system.”

She added that the “sector must quickly get to grips with this issue” and welcomed the launch of a consultation on what action to take that accompanied the publication of the findings by UUK, GuildHE and the Quality Assurance Agency last month.

“Working collaboratively, universities and other higher education providers hold the key to solving this problem. If they do not take action, we will use our powers to drive change,”  Ms Dandridge said.

Education secretary Damian Hinds said that he hoped the latest figures would “act as a wake-up call to the sector – especially those universities which are now exposed as having significant unexplained increases. Institutions should be accountable for maintaining the value of the degrees they award.”


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Reader's comments (11)

This is all caused by the NSS and similar and associated policies. Many of the Universities mentioned do well in the NSS and TEF because they keep students ‘happy with high grades’. Also students - oh sorry consumers - feel a sense of entitlement and demand excessive feedback and model answers to make their studies easier for them. This is all the fault of the government and will only get worse with the TEF.
Grade inflation at English universities is only "unexplained" through Nelsonian blindness. All you need to do is find out about universities' assessment and marking systems: the turn toward shorter and simpler syllabi and easier forms of assessment; the increasing likelihood of students being given detailed 'guidance' as to what will be on purportedly 'unseen' exams; the formal and informal pressures put on markers to raise marks; the debasement of the external-examiner system, etc. Try FOI requests, seek information from academics. Allowing people to continue to claim that hugely inflated marks are or even might be due to "improvements in teaching or students working harder" is disgraceful. Research should also test the hypothesis that there will be a strong correlation between a university's level of grade inflation and its use of student evaluations in 'performance review' of individual academics. It is well known, from good research, that there is a strong correlation between student evaluations and whether the teacher 'marks high' or 'marks low'. I saw another article here with the title "Arbitrary minimum grade thresholds are ‘morally wrong’" and thought: at last, someone pointing out in the THE that universities insisting on minimum average marks is morally wrong-- it harms those students who really did work hard and achieve a distinguished performance. But no-- the article was just another claim that we shouldn't reduce student numbers.
Hi, thanks very much for your comment. It is worth looking at all the other coverage there has been this year in THE about grade inflation. For instance this seemed to be a pretty good example of the kind of thing you point to: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/student-marks-raised-weeks-after-league-table-concerns-email
Precisely! Of course they (i.e. management) never commit anything to official documents or writing when communicating that the grades need to be better but exert pressure on faculty by proxy and in personal (one-to-one) "appraisal" or "support" meetings. Those colleagues who try to uphold academic integrity, standards and rigour – those who mark "too harshly" or refuse to accept certain students onto a course; all in the name of “diversity” and “broadening access” of course – are summoned to such meetings. They are then told that their teaching game needed upping (because it always must be the academic's teaching that is at fault) and shall be cognisant of the impact on the NSS/TEF. The same subtle (or not so subtle) message is constantly bandied about at departmental meetings and at university level but of course always couched in terms of delivering "world-class" or "excellent" teaching and other empty BS words that dominate corporate university speak these days. At the same time (or as a consequence of wooing the student customer), amongst a growing number of students, there seems to be the assumption or even expectation now that a 2.1 is somehow the default grade simply for having “worked hard” on a course (degree by effort) rather than “having performed well” to the requisite standards (degree on merit).
Just to give some strategies my university is doing to inflate grades - (i) enabling students to discount (not re-sit) some modules that they have failed by not including them into the overall average grade for their degree programme, (ii) re-code the grade of some modules that they have failed marginally to be a 'pass', and (iii) rounding marks that are at the lower border of a grade upwards (never downwards) to the next grade bracket. All these strategies only serve to inflate the grades of the student body. It is shameful for university managers/leaders to not admit this. I agree with Excelsior - there should be a FOI for those at the forefront doing the teaching and grading to be whistleblowers.
Yes constant pressure on academics to give high marks to keep the students happy. This leads to a better NSS score, a better position in University league tables and more students coming through the door. This means more cash aqn therefore more pay and bonuses for the senior management team.
I think some of the issue comes from the A level system. With the current level of difficulty and marking down of these exams it can lead to inaccuracies in how the progression of prospective students may be viewed. For example, a lot of my friend group at university all got in through clearing or with grades ranging from B-E and now that we are in an environment where we are not required to memorize specific words to avoid or use in assessments, where our pastoral care is priority and we have different types of assessment we are achieving first class degrees or high second class ones.
It is the easiest way to raise student satisfaction numbers.
There are many factors that contribute to grade inflation - modularisation and semesterisation, pressure from the NSS, dumbing down, better teaching etc etc. What isn't often recognised is that lecturers are increasingly asked to use the entire marking spectrum 0-100. Assessments are designed accordingly - or at least should be. Today, even in written rather than numerical subjects, it's possible to score 100. It could be argued that if everyone gets 100 then the assessment wasn't well designed in the first place. However, one factor that people don't comment on is the UK's outdated degree classification system that is then overlain onto module marks. So If I give someone 70 then there were 30 marks they didn't get - but they still get a first. Perhaps a starred 1st is a temporary solution or instead we simply move to GPA or back to a normal distribution curve.

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