UK universities to limit rounding up of grades to prevent inflation

Sector agrees to new set of principles to stem decades of rising firsts

July 21, 2020
Source: iStock

UK universities have agreed to a set of new rules to tackle grade inflation, including putting limits on how often boundary grades are rounded up and stopping the discounting of low grades in final marks.

The commitment, published by Universities UK and GuildHE, also said that only one algorithm should be used to calculate degree classifications and that weighting given to the marks for different years of study should be limited.

According to the statement, universities should not provide the option of discounting core or final-year modules and students must be given clear guidance on how any discounting applies to their final degree.

It comes after universities minister Michelle Donelan recently said that grade inflation “has to stop” because “too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down – either when admitting students, or in the standards of their courses”.

UK institutions agreed to a “statement of intent” last year in light of the huge rise in firsts and 2:1s awarded over the past decade. In 2019, 76 per cent of students achieved a “good” degree of a first or a 2:1, up from about half 20 years ago. Although in 2020 the rising percentages of firsts appeared to have finally stalled.  

A report from the Quality Assurance Agency was published alongside the new principles, which found that about a third of institutions used some form of discounting policy, in which not all marks were used in the calculation of the degree classification.

The report also found that 30 per cent ran individual students’ marks through multiple algorithms, then awarded students their degree according to the algorithm that provided the highest mark, and that 85 per cent had a borderline policy, with the potential for students’ marks to be increased.

The new principles state that there should be a “maximum zone of consideration of two percentage points from the grade boundary” and rounding should only occur at the final stage.  

Algorithms should be reviewed at least every five years, with academic and non-academic staff, students and accreditation bodies providing input to ensure they are “relevant and appropriate”, according to the new principles.

They also state that institutions should avoid making changes or implementing policies too quickly that may inadvertently create or exacerbate attainment gaps or differential outcomes, but add that algorithms should not be used to tackle or reduce attainment gaps.

David Llewellyn, chair of GuildHE and vice-chancellor of Harper Adams University said that “universities and colleges are committed to maintaining the value of UK degrees and robustly protecting academic standards”.

“Our joint report, setting out principles for degree algorithms, is an important addition to the work that the sector has been doing on protecting academic standards, including degree outcomes statements, degree classification descriptors and work to strengthen the external examiner system,” he said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Always rounding up and never rounding down is a disgraceful grade inflation policy.

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