First class must be for high-fly­ers

Grade in­fla­tion must be tack­led to main­tain the cur­rency of de­grees, says An­drew Wathey

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - An­drew Wathey is vice-chan­cel­lor of Northum­bria Univer­sity and chair of the UK Stand­ing Com­mit­tee for Qual­ity As­sess­ment.

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.

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