Universities clash with regulator on ‘baked in’ grade inflation

Six in 10 firsts awarded in England last year would get lower classification under historic marking standards, claims Office for Students

May 12, 2022
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Universities and students have clashed with the Office for Students over grade inflation after the English regulator warned against the rise in firsts that occurred during the pandemic becoming “baked in”.

The share of UK-domiciled graduates from English universities getting a first has remained at more than one in three for the past two years, rising to 36.1 per cent in 2019-20, as institutions introduced “no detriment” policies to prevent students being unfairly penalised as a result of the disruption caused by Covid-19 shutdowns, and edging up further to 37.9 per cent in 2020-21.

This compares with 29.5 per cent in 2018-19 and represents a sharp increase on 2010-11, when 15.7 per cent of degrees were awarded as firsts.

Institutions have argued that last year’s data reflected the continuing use of some mitigation policies reflecting the ongoing impact of Covid-19.

But in a report published on 12 May the OfS claims that six in 10 first class degrees are “unexplained” – using modelling that suggests the 2020-21 value of 37.9 per cent would have been 15.5 per cent had marking behaviour been the same as a decade previously. It came to this conclusion after controlling for a range of student characteristics, including entry qualifications.

The OfS, which has warned that it could take regulatory action against universities that are seen to be responsible for “unmerited” grade inflation, says that nearly all institutions have seen “significant” increases in unexplained first-class degrees over the past decade, and that this applies across all groups of students.

In 2020-21, 60.8 per cent of students who entered higher education with three As or above at A level got a first, compared with 33.5 per cent in 2010-11; for students who entered with three Ds or lower, the increase has been more than fivefold, from 5.3 per cent to 28.5 per cent.

However, the OfS analysis was unable to quantify the impact of no detriment policies or other Covid-related mitigations, and it is possible that improvements in teaching and learning explain much of the improvement in degree scores.

Susan Lapworth, the OfS’ interim chief executive, said that “unmerited” grade inflation was “bad for students, graduates and employers, and damages the reputation of English higher education”.

“We know that universities and colleges used ‘no detriment’ policies to respond to the exceptional set of circumstances caused by the pandemic. But grade inflation has been a real credibility issue for the sector for some time and the pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to allow a decade of unexplained grade inflation to be baked into the system,” Ms Lapworth said.

“Our report is clear that there are a variety of reasons – including improved teaching and learning – that could lead to an increase in the rate of firsts awarded. However, the sustained increase in unexplained firsts awarded continues to pose regulatory concerns for the OfS.

“It is essential that students, employers and graduates can have confidence that degrees represent an accurate assessment of achievement, with credible and reliable qualifications which stand the test of time.”

Ms Lapworth said that the regulator would shortly publish plans to take further action on grade inflation.

The OfS report notes that, if universities had been successful in closing attainment gaps between different groups of students, the proportion of firsts that were unexplained would be significantly reduced – albeit not eradicated altogether.

And Steve West, the president of Universities UK, said institutions had taken significant steps to limit grade inflation, including improving external examining and changing how they calculate degree classifications.

“Universities are…working to ensure they deliver the highest quality courses that deliver the best outcomes for students and combined with the continued hard work of students, this is likely to partly explain these trends,” said Professor West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England

“The OfS has rightly designed a regulatory system based on the principle that the grades a student enters university with should not limit expectations of what they can achieve, and this logic must also apply to degree classification.

“Universities have been asked to ensure students from disadvantaged backgrounds have the support they need to succeed at university. We believe the OfS must be careful not to assume that students with lower entry grades, typically from more disadvantaged backgrounds, cannot achieve first-class degrees.”

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice-president for higher education of the National Union of Students, said that grade inflation should not be used “to punish students who have worked hard”.

“No detriment policies were a useful mechanism for higher education providers to understand and provide the support that students needed to thrive and succeed during an unprecedented situation,” she said.

“An unjustified focus on grade inflation and looking at ways to hinder students from getting the grades that they have worked hard for and deserve will only aid a marketised approach to education, and does not recognise that students should be rewarded for the hard work that they have put in.”


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Reader's comments (2)

This has little to do with talented but disadvantaged students. Over my career of 30 years as an academic, there has been a steady increase in Firsts awarded. One of the problems is the box-ticking mentality of learning outcomes. The whole point about First Class work is that I cannot teach it to someone - it must come from innovation on the part of the student to take them beyond a good Upper Second. My current department has not suffered grade inflation but then starts to be criticised as "a hard place to get a degree". However, this means that graduates have a high value in the marketplace but the constant pressure to return relatively high averages means it can be hard to maintain standards.
Four in five outputs judged to be either ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Excellent institutions produce excellent students.. as simple as that.