Bubbles, bombast and grade inflation

Invisible hands are pumping up an era of inflation inflation. Is it possible to discern what’s behind the alleged crisis of ever more top marks?

June 25, 2018
Source: Getty

We are suffering from inflation inflation – look around, and the stuff is everywhere.

House-price inflation has sunk the home-owning dreams of a generation; outrage inflation is turning public debate into a cesspool; and job title inflation stalks office corridors.

Higher education is not immune. It rarely is. The cost of studying at university is an obvious example. And, talking of inflation inflation, the arrival of the £9,000 tuition fee in England itself contributed more than any other factor to the consumer price index of inflation back in 2012.

As for grade inflation – well, it’s “ripping through” the UK, according to the former universities minister Jo Johnson, while his successor, Sam Gyimah, has also made it a political priority.

Last week, the Reform thinktank published a report that re-emphasised the pressure being applied to universities on this issue.

It is an easy and obvious target for critics on the right, whose attacks on universities have become more concerted in recent years. Easy because the data seem clear enough: the proportion of top grades – and in the UK system, firsts in particular – is undeniably expanding.

Whether this is grade inflation, rather than a reflection of improved performance by students (and, by extension, those teaching them) is, of course, the question.

In our cover story, we examine the evidence and commentary not just from England or the UK, but from across the world, looking in detail at data from the US, Germany and Australia.

What’s apparent is that grade inflation – if that’s what it is – is a global phenomenon, and one that in marketised systems is consistently laid at the door of the student consumer: their expectations, the incentives and pressures put on academics, and other trappings such as league tables.

The consistency of this commentary is noteworthy because the Reform analysis seeks to dismiss the notion that grade inflation is associated with marketisation (readers may or may not feel that as a pro-market thinktank, they would say that, wouldn’t they?).

As an aside, it’s also noteworthy that the Office for Students, the new regulator of England’s marketised system, has itself been accused of applying the inflationary pressure that ministers are so keen to suppress.

In April, a former head of the Quality Assurance Agency, Peter Williams, accused the OfS of peddling “dangerous nonsense” when it published guidance for universities instructing them to deliver “successful outcomes” for “all” their students.

The OfS responded by insisting that “successful outcomes require commitment and effort both from the university and the student”, but even this illustrates the problematic relationship that exists in this new paradigm.

In our cover feature, we speak to a German professor who has published research on grade inflation over several decades, who argues that in a marketised system “better grades are a win-win situation” because students are more content and benefit from better prospects, while academics are assumed to be doing a better job in their teaching.

In fact, it is win-win-win, since universities themselves also benefit – from fewer complaints and, crucially, better scores in domestic league tables that use measures such as the proportion of top degrees awarded.

One country that does not have obvious evidence of top awards ever increasing is Australia, although our analysis suggests that this is as much because there are no sector-wide data available as anything else.

Which raises another interesting question: could this lack of transparency actually be helping to keep the lid on the inflation apparently seen elsewhere?

It is possible.

In another intervention last week, the OfS announced that it would be publishing an annual list of vice-chancellors’ salaries in England, in order to secure greater “visibility and transparency” and keep university leaders honest.

Yes, I know, I know. But without commenting further on where the OfS might have come up with this brilliant and pioneering idea, it’s worth reflecting that transparency can sometimes have the opposite effect to that intended. As Times Higher Education’s vice-chancellors’ pay survey has shown over the past two decades, even knowing how much the v-c down the road earns has proved inflationary.


Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Related articles


Print headline: Bubbles and bombast

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments