Exam standards need standardisation

The wild variations in the proportions of top grades awarded by different departments and universities must be addressed, says Bernard Rivers

June 19, 2017

It’s no fun being a UK university student at this time of year; the torture of exams has been replaced by the torture of waiting for the results. The one consolation is that the chances of being awarded a first or upper second have never been higher.

Undoubtedly, this trend is caused in part by improvements in the calibre and diligence of students. But in certain subjects at certain universities the evidence suggests grade inflation – in other words, a lowering of standards – is also taking place. This must be addressed.

Within the University of Cambridge, there is something of a stand-off over the issue. Members of what one might call the “consider the students” group point to the glut of firsts and upper seconds being awarded by other universities. They note, for instance, that 53 per cent of final-year mathematics students at University College London (where entry standards are lower than at Cambridge) were awarded a first in 2016, compared with only 33 per cent at Cambridge. They worry that employers will no longer offer jobs to students who fail to earn at least an upper second, so they want upper seconds to be as easy to earn at Cambridge as elsewhere.

Meanwhile, members of what one might call the “maintain standards” group want a Cambridge first or upper second to still mean the same thing as it meant in the past. They point out that, in 1992, 32 per cent of final-year Cambridge students in English were awarded a lower second, compared with only 1 per cent in 2016 – making a lower second now akin to a failure.

In many Cambridge faculties, the “consider the students” group is dominant. In languages, for instance, the proportion of final-year students awarded a first went up from 20 per cent in 2000 to 41 per cent in 2016. In English, the percentage awarded at least an upper second rose from 75 per cent in 2000 to 99 per cent in 2016.

Bernard Rivers
Percentages of final-year Cambridge students awarded a first or upper second in 2016


But in some faculties the “maintain standards” group is dominant, and lower seconds and thirds remain relatively common. As well as mathematics (in which 19 per cent of final-year students were awarded a lower second in 2016 and 6 per cent a third), another good example is engineering (14 and 4 per cent, respectively).

Hence, exam standards vary wildly across the university. Firsts were awarded to 58 per cent of final-year linguistics students in 2016, compared with 41 per cent of languages students, 29 per cent of natural sciences students and 24 per cent of law students. External examiners and the university’s central administration have no authority to enforce consistency and, even more remarkably, the administration has not even publicly acknowledged the problem, let alone proposed any changes.

This situation is unfair to perfectly competent Cambridge students who are awarded lower degrees than peers of similar ability in other subjects or at other universities. At first sight, the obvious solution is for all faculties to award an upper second to virtually every student who fails to earn a first, as is already done not only in English, but also in history and languages. But what would that mean for the university’s reputation? And is the logical conclusion of such a policy the absurdity that, in 20 years, everyone will get a first?

An alternative approach would be for each faculty to predetermine the percentage of students to be awarded each exam classification, after discussion with other faculties and consideration of other universities’ statistics. This wouldn’t necessarily eliminate grade inflation, but it would at least enhance fairness.

But much better would be for such an exercise to be carried out at a sector-wide level. Whatever the incentives created by national league tables, universities need to agree to continue awarding degree classifications below the upper second if that classification is to maintain its meaning and if employers are to be able to continue distinguishing between graduates. A race to the bottom will benefit no one.

Bernard Rivers is a retired economist and was a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge in 2013‑2014. Further information is available at www.BernardRivers.com/exam-analysis.

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