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.

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