Starred firsts only a ‘tem­po­rary’ fix for grade in­fla­tion

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Si­[email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­

In­tro­duc­ing a new band of top marks in UK uni­ver­si­ties to ad­dress grade in­fla­tion is a “nec­es­sary” step but can only be a short-term fix for a sys­tem that is now “fun­da­men­tally flawed”, an aca­demic said.

A re­port by Uni­ver­si­ties UK, the Qual­ity As­sur­ance Agency and GuildHE that calls for a con­sul­ta­tion to look at ways to tackle ap­par­ent grade in­fla­tion in the sec­tor, sug­gests that “starred firsts” could be one pos­si­ble way to ad­dress grow­ing dif­fi­cul­ties with the coun­try’s de­gree clas­si­fi­ca­tion struc­ture.

The share of stu­dents achiev­ing firsts has now reached more than a quar­ter.

The re­port says that its main rec­om­men­da­tions – which in­clude uni­ver­si­ties be­ing more trans­par­ent about how they cal­cu­late de­gree marks – “may not pro­vide a longterm res­o­lu­tion to the sus­tain­abil­ity of the de­gree clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem”.

As a re­sult, it sug­gests that a sec­tor-wide “task and fin­ish group” be set up to look at wider re­form of the grad­ing sys­tem in­clud­ing “re­view­ing the mer­its of a new clas­si­fi­ca­tion struc­ture, such as a new top clas­si­fi­ca­tion, po­ten­tially re­ferred to as a starred first, or al­ter­na­tive grad­ing struc­tures”.

Alan Smithers, di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Ed­u­ca­tion and Em­ploy­ment Re­search at the Univer­sity of Buck­ing­ham, who has ad­vo­cated such a move, said he was “pleased” that starred firsts were now be­ing con­sid­ered but said deeper is­sues also had to be ad­dressed.

“It is nec­es­sary, but can only be a pal­lia­tive,” said Pro­fes­sor Smithers. “In the short term it would iden­tify ‘the best of the best’ in the wake of the ram­pant grade in­fla­tion. But it would be a tem­po­rary so­lu­tion to a process which has be­come fun­da­men­tally flawed.”

He said that, un­like na­tion­ally as­sessed school ex­ams like A lev­els, where a starred cat­e­gory has been used, uni­ver­si­ties were all in­di­vid­ual award­ing bod­ies that had “been try­ing to outdo each other in giv­ing more and more top de­grees for at least the past 15 years”.

This had been ex­ac­er­bated by the rise in tu­ition fees and view of stu­dents as cus­tomers, he added, and in­sti­tu­tions’ “ir­re­spon­si­ble be­hav­iour” now risked harm­ing their au­ton­omy from gov­ern­ment un­less they worked to­gether on ma­jor re­form.

“Fun­da­men­tally, they must find ways of up­hold­ing stan­dards,” he said.

Nick Hill­man, di­rec­tor of the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute, said he had “al­ways been a lit­tle wary of the idea of starred firsts” and A*s were no longer used at GCSE level, “so it would seem a lit­tle per­verse to adopt it in HE now”.

He ar­gued that more at­ten­tion should be given to con­sid­er­ing a ma­jor over­haul such as mov­ing to a grade point av­er­age-type sys­tem like that used in the US and else­where.

“[Grade point av­er­age] is def­i­nitely worth giv­ing more time to. As the univer­sity sec­tor has grown more di­verse, with a wider range of in­sti­tu­tions and more di­verse stu­dents, and as the num­ber of em­ploy­ers who em­ploy grad­u­ates has grown, the old grad­ing sys­tem has come to look a lit­tle rough and un­so­phis­ti­cated,” Mr Hill­man said.

Some uni­ver­si­ties al­ready of­fer starred firsts or dis­tinc­tions for the top-scor­ing stu­dents, but the method­ol­ogy for award­ing these varies across the sec­tor.

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