UK v-cs report ‘significant progress’ on tackling grade inflation

Review says stall in the rise of firsts and widespread commitment to ‘statement of intent’ is already protecting degree standards

December 17, 2020
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Universities in the UK have already made “significant progress” in tackling grade inflation after agreeing to a “statement of intent” to protect degree standards last year, according to Universities UK.

The vice-chancellors’ group cited the levelling-off of the rise in first-class degrees in 2018-19 as proof that universities had already committed to reducing grade inflation.

The review of progress towards protecting degree standards comes one year after the statement was agreed, in which university bodies, including UUK, pledged to review and explain how they calculate final-degree classifications and to publish data and analysis on degree outcomes.

In England and Wales, this meant each institution carrying out an internal review and publishing “degree outcome statements” in 2020. So far, 61 providers – 58 from England and three from Wales – have published their statements, and all providers are on course for publishing theirs by the end of January 2021, UUK said.

A survey of English and Welsh providers found that the majority – 82 per cent – found reviewing student outcomes a useful task, but several providers explained that there was some conflict between their work to close attainment gaps for different student groups while simultaneously ensuring the value of degree outcomes.

Others who cited more difficulty in completing the task noted the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic, which coincided with the development of the statements.

The sector has also initiated a number of other initiatives to tackle degree inflation, after the proportion of firsts and 2:1s rose by more than half over 10 years. This included a new set of principles for effective degree algorithm design and the publication of UK-wide degree classification descriptors.

UUK and GuildHE, which represents specialist institutions, surveyed members and found that 76 per cent of providers across the UK have used or are intending to use the descriptors within their institution.

However, some respondents expressed reservations about the value of the descriptors, which they felt were too generic to be useful.

The survey found that 96 per cent of providers said they intended to use the principles on algorithm design, published in July 2020, which include putting limits on how often boundary grades are rounded up, how many algorithms are applied and limiting the weighting given to the marks for different years of study.

According to the report, many of those surveyed recognised that more could be done to improve the transparency of degree algorithms “to ensure they are student focused, through resources such as online calculators”.

Another area that institutions have strengthened is their external examiner system, the UUK report said. The survey found that 87 per cent of institutions have made changes since the statement of intent in May 2019. Since then, just over half, 55 per cent, of providers have developed additional guidance for external examiners. This includes training and mentoring for newly inducted examiners and the appointment of a chief external examiner or equivalent to give oversight across the whole provider.

Debra Humphris, vice-chancellor of the University of Brighton and chair of UUK’s student policy network, said it was “very encouraging to see the progress that has been made across the sector. Universities clearly remain committed to taking action to address the issue of grade inflation.”

“Universities know that there is still more to be done, particularly since teaching, learning and methods of assessment have all needed to change in response to the pandemic. The immediate and longer-term impact of these changes must be understood,” she said.

“We will continue to ensure that lessons learned are shared across the sector so that UK universities can guarantee transparency, fairness and reliability in the way they award degrees.”

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