Bursting grade inflation needs a sharper needle

Putting universities in ‘special measures’ or even abolishing degree classifications altogether should be on the table, says Geoffrey Alderman

January 10, 2019
Balloon popped

Over the past two decades I have followed the collapse in academic standards at UK universities with some attention.

That is why I could not share in the shock that many felt when the Office for Students published its report last month on what its chief executive Nicola Dandridge called “spiralling grade inflation [that] risks undermining public confidence in our higher education system”.

It detailed the scarcely credible fact that half of English students at the University of Surrey now receive a first-class degree: that laurel once handed to a select few. And nearly three-quarters of institutions have seen a “significant” and “unexplained” rise in the share of graduates taking the top classification, it added.

Days earlier, a report compiled on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment revealed much the same. “Over the past decade, the number of graduates receiving at least an upper second-class degree has risen by 55 per cent, at an average rate of 5 per cent annually,” the report said. “During the same period...the proportion of first-class honours degrees doubled, from 13 per cent to 26 per cent”, reflecting a “general trend [that] can be traced over the last 20 years and beyond”.

So what is to be done? The standing committee’s answer, set out in an accompanying consultation document, is truly underwhelming. It proposes a UK-wide “statement of intent” to protect “the value of honours degree qualifications over time” and “prevent potential grade inflation”.  Institutions should publish “degree outcomes statements” and there should be “a sector-wide dialogue to establish shared principles for algorithm practice, with an emphasis on borderline ‘zones of consideration’ and discounting practices”. “External examiners and academic staff” should receive “professional development”, and there might be a new award of a “starred” first!

All this amounts to tinkering at the edges of the problem. A much more radical approach is urgently needed, of which the essential elements might be the publication by each university of its assessment and classification criteria, subject by subject. These should then be subject to approval (or not) by the Office for Students.

Those operating unacceptable criteria should be placed under “special measures”, such as external scrutiny and (if necessary) direction. This might result in the suspension or even revocation of degree-awarding powers.

More than that, we should not be afraid to consider the very future of the classified honours degree. After all, UK medical and veterinary medical degrees are not conventionally classified, so why insist on classifying other degrees? Graduating students could simply be presented with a nicely printed list of the modules that they studied, and the mark or grade they obtained for each.

I dealt with many of these issues at my inaugural lecture at the University of Buckingham in June 2008. I laid the blame then primarily on those responsible for the stewardship of academic standards, who had proved themselves “unwilling or unable to withstand the pressures coming from the culture of league tables that many vice-chancellors have been only too happy to embrace”.

My lecture led to an unexpected but welcome public outcry. The universities select committee of the House of Commons launched an inquiry partly aimed at my findings, and which revealed a situation worse than even I had imagined. It found evidence not only of a measurable decline in academic standards, but of a sector in denial about what had been going on, epitomised by vice-chancellors’ “defensive complacency”. The system (if it may be called that) for supposedly safeguarding standards was “out-of-date, inadequate and in urgent need of replacement”, the report concluded. But little has changed since then.

Vice-chancellors are still unable – or, more likely, unwilling – to give a straightforward answer to a simple question: what assurance can they give that students obtaining, say, first-class honours degrees at different universities have attained the same intellectual standards?

If the OfS’ threat to fine or discipline institutions that continue to flout academic standards fails to bring meaningful change, maybe it is time to do away with classifications altogether.

Geoffrey Alderman is Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Puncture grade inflation

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