It may be harder to get firsts as universities combat grade inflation

Graduates wearing mortarboards
by Hayley Pearce | 22 May 2019

Universities agree ‘strong and decisive action’ is needed

A statement of intent supported by the UK higher education sector is aimed at helping to protect the value of degrees, but it may mean tougher marking.

On Monday, Universities UK published a joint commitment on degree classifications, aimed at making them fairer and more consistent across the sector.

The UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) launched a UK-wide consultation in November 2018 on proposals for higher education providers to develop and adopt a sector-wide statement of intent to protect the value of qualifications over time.

As part of this, UKSCQA, Universities UK (UUK), GuildHE and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) agreed to take action to protect the value of degree qualifications for the long term and to tackle perceptions that degree courses are ‘dumbing down’.

Transparency, fairness and reliability

The resulting statement of intent is overwhelmingly supported by the sector and outlines the shared commitment of universities to transparency, fairness and reliability in the way they award degrees. It provides a framework for action and will be in place for the 2019/20 academic year.

The statement of intent calls on providers to meet four specific commitments:

  • Ensure assessments continue to stretch and challenge students
  • Review and explain how final degree classifications are calculated
  • Support and strengthen the external examiners system
  • Review and publish data and analysis on students’ degree outcomes

A common degree classification framework, which will act as a reference point for providers by describing high-level attributes expected of a graduate to achieve a particular degree, is also in progress.

‘Welcome’

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), called it a “welcome statement of intent” which “shows that universities recognise the need to ensure that degree standards are maintained, and can be trusted by students and employers alike.”

She added that OfS’ research into grade inflation shows it has been “significant and unexplained” in recent years, adding that “measured but decisive action” is necessary to “ensure that students, graduates and employers have confidence in the manner in which degrees are awarded.”

Professor Dame Janet Beer, president of Universities UK, said: “The UK higher education sector has a world-leading reputation, so it is critical to protect the value of a university degree. Students deserve to have qualifications which they can take pride in, and employers and the wider public need to have confidence in the results students achieve.

“It’s heartening to see the commitment shown by universities to work both individually and collectively through this strongly-supported statement of intent. It is clear universities are taking this issue seriously – we must all now focus on exploring the ways in which we can adapt to meet these challenges.”

Standardisation

In a thread about the difficulty of achieving firsts at some universities relative to others, TSR member Nichrome said that ”some sort of standardisation between universities needs to occur which will result in one of two things: 1) the exams at lower ranked universities increase in difficulty and we return to the days when they give out few firsts/2.1s, or 2) the exams at higher ranked universities become easier and you end up with very high proportions of firsts (especially at Oxbridge).”

But in a thread about grade inflation, Neilos said that it is “not surprising that it happens, given the competitive nature of universities,” adding, “But then... isn't grade inflation to be expected when more and more publications, research, books and so on are easily accessible, with minimal effort, online?

“Even as recently as 2010/11 there was nowhere near as much information parked in nice, user-friendly online libraries as there is now. It's far easier to acquire knowledge now, so it's not surprising grades are rising.”

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