Grade Inflation: The Next Battleground for Higher Education

Grade Inflation: The Next Battleground for Higher Education

By Allan Howells

Data published by Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) continue shows that more than a quarter of UK undergraduates completing their studies in 2017 were awarded first-class honours. In 2012, the corresponding figure was only 18%. Add to this the number of students gaining upper second-class honours and we now find that the proportion of students gaining “good honours degrees” account for three-quarters of the student population in the UK.

The publication of these figures suggests the clash between government and universities on the governance and leadership of the higher education sector will continue to be focussed on how universities self-regulate their academic standards. Whilst the sector tactically sought to seize the initiative in 2018 with the UK Standing Committee on Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) report “The Drivers of Degree Classification”, there is no evidence of action being taken to tackle the “unexplained” 10% increase in first class honours awarded. Even the UKSCQA’s conclusion that degree classifications should be removed from leagues tables does not appear to have been embraced. If anything, the increased awareness of widening access to different socio-economic groups and the on-going use of commercial essay mills will continue to ensure that grade inflation remains an open wound.

There is no doubt that improvements in primary and secondary school education have better-prepared students for their transition into higher education. The drive by the higher education sector to introduce professional standards and support the development of university teaching staff has made a positive contribution to the quality of teaching and learning that undergraduates receive today.

The Higher Education Academy’s UK professional standards framework with its fellowship programme has provided much-needed credibility and recognition on the value of excellent teaching and pedagogy, especially in our on-going environment of “research-first”. Yet it is difficult to see how these alone explain the steep increase in student performance over the past eight years, prompting questions around whether there are other external factors driving this increased performance.

Don’t blame students

It is all too easy and unfair to blame students who, in a market economy and paying fees of £9,000+ per year, are demanding better degree outcomes. One only has to look at the promotional and marketing materials of universities to see that many students have been sold their place under the impression that they will be studying a high-quality course being delivered by the best teachers in a stimulating learning environment.

And in more recent times the focus towards improved employment prospects and employability skills only increases student expectations that their degree outcome will be a “good degree”. So, the challenge must come back to the universities themselves. Universities, after all, are the individual awarding bodies and are therefore accountable for managing their own academic standards. Ultimately it is the individual university, their senates or academic boards, which is responsible for determining the degree algorithms and marking schemes used. This is where the real challenge lies. 

Universities now operate in a dynamic market environment where their brand and league table performances have become the proxy for quality. This drives their ability to recruit students, which in turn secures financial sustainability. For many years, more and more university leaders have aligned aspects of their strategies purely to drive improvements in the league table positions. Almost all the major league tables now use “good honours degrees” as a metric for defining “high quality and good teaching”.

I have observed many decisions being taken primarily to prioritise the positive impact on league table performance without deliberate reflection on whether the actions address what is best for the student. Revising degree algorithms or introducing greater flexibility around borderline marks to enable a greater number of students achieve higher results is not uncommon within the sector.

Looking at algorithms

It has been interesting to look at the degree awarding algorithms and regulations at institutions where I have worked or examined and observe how their algorithms have evolved in ways that provide more opportunities for borderline marks to be reviewed. I now see approaches taken that seek to provide outcomes which recognise the level a student can operate at, rather than provide an “averaged” profile that reflects performance over time.

Let’s be honest, these decisions are not being taken for the benefit of the students. With more students gaining higher grades it has become difficult for employers to distinguish between candidates using degree classification alone, yet universities have dragged their feet on other initiatives such as Grade Point Average (GPA) and the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), both of which offer employers a more candid and richer insight into student performance and skills. The lack of progress made on GPA, will be perceived as institutional protectionism which only adds further perception of a sector driven by individual desire rather than collective ownership.

Why haven’t universities engaged with these initiatives with as much vigour as they have done to enhance their league table metrics?

I would argue that the challenge for university leaders is ultimately about governance. Are they prepared to allow league tables, and in particular the media companies who use them to promote their own organisations, to drive the HE agenda? Or will universities, individually and collectively, now take back control? I never saw any real appetite in the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to engage in managing the league table debate, nor its successor the OfS.

I believe that if university leaders don’t step up and take control of the league table agenda, then the next big clash with government will be around the university sector’s ability to self-govern its academic standards. Does the sector really want the Office for Students to become an Ofsted for HE, with all the tools of an inspectorate and the ability to create its own assessment of university performance? It might be an attractive proposition for some politicians who want to remove VCs and reduce their remuneration.

If you would like to speak further about the services covered by our Education Practice please email education@wickland-westcott.email or contact Allan Howells on 01625 508100 or email allan.howells@wickland-westcott.email.


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The Rise of Narcissism

The Rise of Narcissism

By Colin Mercer

"Executives Fear Leadership Shortage" was the title of an article I read recently. Delayering, the requirement to achieve more with less, growing leadership transparency and probity, shareholder militancy, and the aspirations of family-orientated Generation Y will, apparently, combine to create a dearth of people willing to lead. After all, why stick your neck out and take charge when you can tuck yourself up in a safe corner of the organisation, keep your head down, and enjoy plenty of work-life balance?

At Wickland Westcott, we do not foresee a shortage of leadership candidates. Rather, we anticipate a more worrying prospect. Those with an interest in social developments cannot fail to have noticed certain cultural shifts in recent years – the desire for fame, the rise of celebrity culture, the growing status attributed to physical appearance in some quarters, and materialism itself all suggest a potential growth in egotism, vanity and pride. The leadership literature identifies narcissism as an important and often problematic feature of managerial personalities, and we think it is on the rise.

The issue, therefore, is not that there will be a shortage of leaders. Rather, the problem will be a shortage of the right type of leaders. We expect to see an increase in people seeking leadership positions in order to satisfy their own desire for egotistic admiration, rather than to help the organisation achieve its objectives. (There may also be a cross-cultural variable at play here – although modesty and discretion appear to be waning somewhat as values in the West, they still appear to have traction in many Eastern cultures).

Indicators of narcissism can include bragging, pretending to be more important than you are, arrogance, a sense of entitlement, and difficulty demonstrating empathy towards others. Interestingly, the over-confidence present in the narcissist means there is often a great deal of early promise in relationships – people are excited to have this person around. However, this initial enthusiasm tends to evaporate as the exploitation, jealousy and suspiciousness become evident. It is perhaps also worth noting that the usual shorthand definition of narcissism – ‘loving oneself’ – is not really accurate, as the person’s pursuit of admiration is driven by insecurity, so that their self-belief has a hollowness to it.

Of course, these are quite extreme behaviours. Surely, we never really see them demonstrated in practice, beyond a select group of A-list celebrities, and of course, by candidates for BBC’s ‘The Apprentice’? The above list may be something of a caricature, but the themes can nevertheless be witnessed in some middle and senior managers. Hints of narcissism can be seen when managers ‘split’ their people, signalling a very clear divide between those they trust and those they do not, and when managers foster a blame culture. To be clear, these behaviours do not, on their own, imply that a manager is a narcissist, and of course we have to be careful with labels, but the existence of these themes, along with other traits mentioned, can build into an overall pattern.

The trait need not always be necessarily negative of course. Constructive narcissists tend to use their influence and authority for positive outcomes by energising, empowering and mobilising others to achieve their compelling vision. Reactive narcissists tend to be distrustful, self-absorbed projectors who shamelessly take the credit for others’ achievements, thereby damaging relationships, and ultimately (if they are senior enough) threatening the success of the venture (see Lubit, and Kets De Vries).

A key implication of this rising tide of narcissism is the need for organisations to be able to spot such characters, and to determine if they are likely to bring negative consequences. At Wickland Westcott, when assessing we look for leaders who are willing to share the credit for success, and are concerned if candidates seek to scapegoat when failure has occurred. Judicious use of appropriate psychometrics can help greatly here, as can a general awareness of the likely traits and indicators. Credo, the new personality questionnaire from Tests Direct (https://www.tests-direct.com) has useful scales that tap into these dimensions.

Ultimately, we know that leaders cast long shadows. Getting the right people into positions of authority can go a long way to securing the success of the enterprise, and the well-being of the people within it. We should be careful who we select to lead. And where we see indications of narcissistic behaviour, we should invest time to help the particular manager understand the downsides, and capitalise on the constructive upsides.

By the way, you are likely to have found this article both informative and useful. You are indeed fortunate to have discovered it. The clever ideas are all my own. Please circulate it to as many people as possible, encouraging them to send me positive feedback. Negative comments will be haughtily dismissed.


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World Class Succession Planning

World Class Succession Planning

By Liz Lawson

The case for taking a proactive approach to succession planning has never been stronger. Finding and appointing external hires is 1.7 times more expensive than developing and promoting internal candidates. What’s more, the failure rate of external hires runs between 40% and 60% compared with a rate of 25% for internal appointments.

However, predicting future leadership requirements is tough – the pace of change and differences between organisations mean it can be difficult to forecast demand and implement a pipeline of capable talent.

In response, Wickland Westcott has been researching the fundamental principles that lie behind successful talent and succession programmes. We studied a range of sectors and organisations, and cross-referenced our findings with a literature review of recent academic studies. This led us to develop of a simple framework for the design of new succession systems, as well as for the audit and improvement of existing programmes. At the heart of the framework are three factors:

  1. Context relates to the importance of ensuring all talent initiatives are aligned with the organisation’s goals, strategy, values and wider HR processes. It also involves ensuring succession priorities are consistent with likely future organisational challenges.
  2. Strong Processes are required to support succession planning tools. An emphasis on robust methods of knowledge management is crucial, alongside clear and well understood managerial processes that embed a succession oriented mindset throughout the organisation. Achievement of a succession-mindset is signalled when line mangers take ownership for developing high potential staff, and readily looking for internal candidates who can be developed rather than rushing towards the external market.
  3. The Content factor refers to the quality of the tools used within talent system, and the accuracy of information used to calculate the needs of the organisation. Feeding in accurate, up to date information about talent requirements and current capability is essential to the effectiveness of any succession programme.

To support the development of excellent succession and talent programmes Wickland Westcott has developed a simple checklist around these three factors, which can be found here.

In summary, best-in-class organisations use succession planning as a strategic enabler for both current and future business needs. It is not just the content of succession management processes that are vital, the wider business context and how the process is deployed and monitored must be considered in order to optimise the effectiveness of succession planning.

What next?

The identification of these three factors has helped move forward our own thinking on succession planning. At Wickland Westcott we are learning all the time however, so if you have additional experience or would like to discuss any aspect of leadership, please contact Liz Lawson on 01625 508100 (liz@wickland-westcott.email).

 



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A Model for Learning Agility

A Model for Learning Agility

By John Milsom

Learning Agility can be defined as extent to which an individual is equipped to learn from their experience and apply these insights to new situations. In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, the importance of learning is paramount. Learning agility can also accelerate the diversity and inclusion agenda, as the more progressive organisations define their people requirements in terms of skills, and not just experiences, thereby increasing fairness and opening up untapped pools of talent.

At leadership consultancy Wickland Westcott we have studied research in this field, and combined with our own experience of working with leaders, identify six underpinning factors.

Cognitive Ability to make links and integrate new information, work deftly with complex ideas, entertain step-change and discontinuity, and handle ambiguity. Memory is a key component of this factor.

Learning Motivation relates to aspects of personality, in particular one of the big five dimensions – Openness to Experience. Learning Motivation is associated with high levels of curiosity, an intrinsic interest in learning, and an enduring thirst for gaining new experiences.

Emotional Intelligence. All four of the Goleman’s EI elements are important, in order to provide the emotional stability required for individuals to seek honest feedback and process it effectively.

The three core drivers described above are generally stable elements that can be tough to develop. However with focussed effort, changes are possible and indeed likely over an individual’s lifetime. The following three Accelerants are much more susceptible to change (in our view) – more easily developable within the shorter term.

Learning Capability refers to an individual’s proficiency in skills related to learning, including being able to spot valuable learning opportunities, planning learning-related activities, and building in time for preparation, personal reflection and knowledge consolidation.

Domain Experience refers to the experience the individual has accumulated. It is domain specific, rather than generic. This is a particularly interesting factor from an assessment perspective, because whilst experiencing something does tend to make it easier to learn about, there is no guarantee such learning actually accrues. This introduces the risk that ‘years of experience’ is erroneously treated by recruiters as a proxy for accumulated learning, damaging the fairness of the process and closing-off less domain-experienced but equally capable candidates.

Domain Aspiration relates to the person’s level of interest in learning within that specific field of expertise. Essentially, is the person interested in immersing her/himself in that discipline? It could be driven by a particular passion (eg. for a type of music, sport, or particular subject) or by a belief that developing oneself would be helpful (eg. in earning a promotion or achieving a long-term career goal). Without this absorption, the learning is unlikely to be sufficiently deep-rooted.


What next?

The identification of these six learning agility factors helps inform our assignments in finding and developing leaders. At Wickland Westcott we are learning all the time however, so if you have alternative views or would like to discuss any aspect of leadership, please contact John Milsom (Director) on 01625 508100 (john@wickland-westcott.email).


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Pressure to Appoint

Pressure to Appoint

By Laura Phelps-Naqvi

Over the last couple of days I’ve sat in different boardrooms with two separate clients: the first, a national retailer and the second, an internationally focused University. Both organisations face significant challenges in an increasingly competitive market where the customer is cost savvy and expects more for their buck. Both organisations are delivering significant transformational change agendas in public view. Any senior appointments they make are liable to media scrutiny.

Our role is to support these clients in assessing for business critical appointments, including external hires, promotions and succession planning. With such appointments, clients usually want the right candidate, right now, who can hit the ground running. So almost always there is a pressure to appoint.

When the perfect candidate is available and raring to go, it is a great day. But this is unusual. More often, the client is faced with a range of candidates who each have strengths and development areas in relation to the role specification. We have observed common problems that can surface at this stage:

    • A drift from criterion-based assessment (fit vs the specification) towards norm-based assessment (‘the best of the bunch’).
    • Potential dissonance arising between those who favour the long-term view (‘let’s wait until we find the perfect candidate’) and those looking for immediate resolution (‘we’ve been out to the market – this is what’s available’). In our experience, those colleagues who are covering for the vacancy/feeling the pain are almost always in this latter camp.

In these situations we have found it helpful to ask a series of questions:

      1. Although not currently a perfect role-fit, do we believe that the favoured candidates will fit effectively into the team (and the culture of the organisation if coming from outside)?
      2. Can we think creatively to mitigate the gaps that these candidates currently have? For example, which skills are most developable and how/when could this development take place?
      3. How aware are the favoured candidates of the gaps between their profile and the role specification? If they did recognise these gaps, how committed would they be to closing them?
      4. What else do the favoured candidates bring, over and above the specification that might also be valuable to the organisation?
      5. Is there a way to re-organise the team to accommodate a favoured candidate with a few skills gaps?

Ultimately, talent can be scarce, and the recruiting organisation has a tough decision to make. Wickland Westcott, when assessing candidates, is well aware of this and it can therefore be tempting for the Consultant to soften the assessment report. But we will never do this.

However, we are always open to conversations that look beyond the exact here-and-now fit, and seek to determine ‘how’ a candidate could be supported to be successful in a role. In our experience, signs of such flexibility include values-alignment and cultural fit (hence Question 1 above), as well as the candidate’s ability to learn and an openness to change (Question 3). Courage is also a good indicator.

Increasingly then, we ask clients to be more flexible and accommodating when bringing in senior hires. If none of the jigsaw-pieces on the shortlist fit the current picture perfectly, how can the picture itself be changed to accommodate one or more of the pieces? This is talent management in its broadest sense, and the organisations that do this are likely to secure the best people in the market.

For a conversation regarding the above please call Laura Phelps-Naqvi (Head of Practice, Leadership Development), on 01625 508100 or email laura@wickland-westcott.email


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