University standards in England should be dictated by external professional bodies, with a national exam in each discipline deciding the proportions of each degree classification that institutions can award, a right-leaning thinktank says.
The proposals in a report from Reform, published on 21 June, are intended to address what it calls “two decades of uninterrupted degree inflation”, but would require major and highly controversial legislative changes if they were ever to come to pass.
The British higher education system is widely regarded as the second strongest in the world behind the US, with institutional autonomy – including on the setting of standards – traditionally seen as central to the success of world-leading systems.
But Sam Gyimah, the universities minister in the Westminster government, warned providers to guard against “grade inflation” in a recent speech at the Higher Education Policy Institute conference, and the topic was a frequent target for Jo Johnson, his predecessor.
The Reform report is written by Tom Richmond, senior research fellow at the thinktank, who was formerly a researcher for ex-Conservative MP Andrew Turner and was a policy adviser in the Department for Education under secretaries of state Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan.
The report says that the Office for Students should introduce a new condition of registration that would require all providers to only offer undergraduate degree courses that are formally recognised by an external body known as a “designated assessment body”, says the report, A Degree of Uncertainty: an Investigation into Grade Inflation in Universities.
These bodies “would be given the power to set the standards required by all HE providers when offering each degree course and they [could] refuse to allow a provider to offer a degree course if their standards are not met”, it continues. “The Higher Education and Research Act (2017) should be amended so that the DABs are allowed to specify ‘sector-recognised standards’.”
There should be a “single, national assessment lasting approximately three to four hours for each degree course” taken “by all students studying towards that degree in their final year” and to be worth “no more than 10 per cent of the final degree mark for each student”, the report says.
The performance of students at each institution in this exam would “determine the proportions of each degree classification that the provider can award”. The “proportion of classifications awarded at a national level for each subject would be: 10 per cent of students awarded a first; 40 per cent awarded a 2:1; 40 per cent awarded a 2:2; and 10 per cent awarded a third”, it continues.
These proportions would be “in line” with the national picture in 1997, says the report.
In terms of the professional bodies that would act as designated assessment bodies, Reform cites the General Medical Council as an example of an external body closely involved in setting standards for its field.
The report offers few details on which bodies might set standards in fields such as history or creative arts, for example. It is “envisaged that learned societies who have not necessarily taken on this role in the past (such as the British Academy)” could come forward to “provide a professional registration or accreditation function”, the report says.
The Reform proposals are likely to be regarded as outlandish by universities and many policymakers; whether they come to the attention of Mr Gyimah remains to be seen.
A Universities UK spokeswoman said that institutions had “always recognised the need for a shared national framework to award degrees”, and that this was set out in the Quality Code and the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications.
“The independence of universities to decide what they teach and how is at the heart of successful systems around the world, of which the UK is a leading example,” the spokeswoman said.
“Different universities teach different curriculums that reflect their specialisms. Universities cannot teach students according to a national curriculum while maintaining the breadth and diversity of courses that students and employers rightly value.”