First class must be for high-flyers
Grade inflation must be tackled to maintain the currency of degrees, says Andrew Wathey
Recent reports in Times Higher Education have highlighted the rise in the proportion of students receiving first or upper second-class degrees, with more than a quarter of graduates receiving first-class degrees in 2016-17 – up from 18 per cent in 2012-13.
Now, three-quarters of students are expected to graduate with firsts or 2:1s. Unless universities take action, it is likely that this proportion will rise further, undermining confidence in the value of a degree from a UK university and rendering the classification system less useful for employers and students.
The UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment, which provides oversight for quality and standards issues in higher education, has launched a consultation with recommendations designed to address these challenges.
Such increases are not unique to the UK, and they are to be expected in a system like ours, which judges student performance against criteria rather than awarding a set proportion of degrees at a particular classification.
Students working harder, entering with higher qualifications, and better investment in teaching and learning are all things that may reasonably be expected to improve the proportion of firsts and 2:1s being awarded.
But it is also possible, in view of continued significant increases, that there is an element of inflation as well as genuine improvement. This is concerning for graduates, employers and all those who reasonably expect the system to be reliable, consistent and stable. It is also important to current and future students, who should be confident that the classification of their degrees will maintain its currency.
The consultation is based on a report from Universities UK, GuildHE and the Quality Assurance Agency, which have investigated
this issue on behalf of the standing committee.
Universities, colleges, students, employers and others with an interest in this work are invited to respond to a series of proposals focused on improving transparency and understanding of the complex factors involved in determining the classification a student receives.
Crucially, the consultation sets out a draft description of expected student performance at each level of award, from first to third class. This has been developed by UUK, GuildHE and the QAA in consultation with the sector throughout the past year. We want universities to consider whether this represents an accurate description of the expected standards for each award, and, if so, propose that it is used as a common reference point for universities.
The consultation recommends that universities publish and explain the processes that they use to determine a student’s final degree classification. This builds on work undertaken last year by UUK and GuildHE, which found that universities approach these processes very differently. Some differences might arise from pedagogical differences between disciplines. However, this report found clear opportunities to improve consistency.
It is important that universities draw on independent external expertise in designing, delivering and reviewing their processes. The consultation asks universities to consider appointing an external academic adviser to provide this expertise and to support university governing bodies in providing oversight of standards.
There is clearly more that can be done to tackle grade inflation and ensure public confidence in the results students receive and the value of their degrees, and these consultation proposals represent a substantial step forward for the higher education sector.