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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.”