Rise in good degrees not just grade inflation

March 29, 2002

The proportion of students graduating with a first-class or upper-second degree has increased from a third to a half over the past 15 years. Are standards falling and grades being inflated or are universities getting better at teaching?

Economics professors Geraint Johnes of Lancaster University Management School and Robert McNabb of Cardiff Business School presented the findings of their study of the issue to the Royal Economic Society conference at Warwick University this week.

Using data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and its predecessor, the Universities' Statistical Record, the study found significant evidence of grade inflation during the 1980s just before the expansion of higher education. Between 1984 and 1993, the proportion of students gaining a "good" degree increased by 14 per cent but they discovered no grade inflation since then.

A more modest increase in degree performance has occurred since 1990. Professor Johnes attributed this to "changing characteristics of the students - including better preparation by the secondary schools".

A-level performance had significant impact on degree performance, while universities with a high percentage of male students tended to award fewer good degrees. An increasing number of students living at home was linked to declining standards.

The economists also examined the universities' efficiency in teaching students. Professor Johnes and Professor McNabb found that, despite policy measures to improve the learning environment for students, such as the Quality Assurance Agency, changes to assessment methods and creating market pressure through league tables, there had been virtually no change in efficiency over the past 25 years.

* Students in mixed-ability courses are more likely to drop out than those in more uniform groups. And those in the top range of ability are almost as likely to leave as those at the lower end, according to Warwick University economics department researchers Wiji Arulampalam, Robin Naylor and Jeremy Smith.

Dr Naylor said: "If universities are trying to respond to government incentives, they should make sure they have policies in place to give appropriate support to students to mitigate these effects."

The research looked at entry cohorts between 1984 and 1992, basing the assessment of ability on A-level scores.

For males, they found courses with a wide spread of abilities increased the probability of the weakest and the strongest students dropping out. But for females, they found a wide spread of abilities meant the weakest were less likely to drop out.

For both sexes, the researchers found that strong students were more likely to leave their course if the spread of abilities was wide. Dr Naylor suggested this was because they felt they had overperformed or been too cautious in their application.

* Male electrical engineering and agricultural graduates are most likely to be following in their fathers' footsteps by adopting the same career, according to Arnaud Chevalier, researcher at the Institute for the Study of Social Change, University College Dublin and the Centre for the Economics of Education at the London School of Economics.

Dr Chevalier found that 25 per cent of agriculture graduates entered the same career as their fathers. This figure was 23 per cent for electrical engineering, 21.5 per cent for clinical medicine and 21 per cent for botany.

Overall, 10 per cent of graduates were in the same occupation as their father six or ten years after graduation. Those whose fathers were entrepreneurs or professionals were up to 30 per cent more likely to follow in paternal footsteps.

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