Below standard: grade inflation in TEF

Image: Gary Walters/Ikon

Students are getting lazy because they’ll probably get a 2.i. Employers have no idea about students’ competence because universities are showering Firsts like confetti. There’s no point doing any teaching, just send them out the door with a good degree and all will be well. There’s a crisis in confidence.

That’s if we believe Jo Johnson in his speech to vice chancellors at Universities UK’s annual conference:

“Unchecked, grade inflation will undermine the reputation of the entire UK HE sector, creating a dangerous impression of slipping standards, undermining the efforts of those who work hard for their qualifications and poorly serving the needs of employers.”

It’s true that the proportion of so-called ‘good’ degrees, that is Firsts and Upper Seconds, has been on the rise. HESA collects and reports on the data. It’s also true that plenty of universities have explicit (or at the very least implicit) policies to increase the proportion of the highest awards. It’s fairly obvious how the incentives work here: league tables rank you on how many you give out, and there’s an obvious benefit for students to receive ‘better’ awards. The standards of the institution aren’t rigorously and consistently held in check by External Examiners. And everybody’s doing it – so what’s the harm in encouraging colleagues to “use the full upper range of the mark scheme” to make sure that there are more higher class degrees. It has also been within an institution’s power to change their classification algorithms so that students are more likely to get a higher award, though that freedom may diminish.

If, at this point, you want a refresher on the current standards landscape, I recommend Registrarism’s guide here.

TEF and grade inflation

Johnson proposes to get a handle on grade inflation through the Teaching Excellence Framework. The ‘lessons learned’ summary gives the outline for how this will work:

“The supplementary grade inflation metric will record the proportion of firsts, 2:1s and other grades as a percentage of all classified degrees at that provider 1, 2, 3 and 10 years before the year of assessment… If grade inflation has occurred, this will be considered evidence of reducing rigour and stretch.”

The implication is that TEF’s assessors will see a spike in the number of Firsts and lose confidence in the institution, using this measure to drop them down a grade in TEF. It would be interesting to imagine a situation in which a university awarded fewer Firsts in the TEF year and that information were used to bump it up! Fewer top awards equal higher standards. I’m not sure that would wash as an argument in a school seeing a decline in top A-level or GCSE grades.

But the comparison with schools isn’t a complete one. Universities both set the exams and teach to them without an external body providing moderation across providers. To create a system of nationally-comparable standards, we’d need to have the same examinations which would need the same curricula. And it’s not like there’s universal confidence in school-level examination standards with very different grade profiles across the subjects and exam boards.

Let’s talk standards

Jo Johnson recognises that standards are – for the time being at least – the responsibility of the degree-awarding institution. He reprised the argument well in his speech to UUK:

“At the very heart of this issue is a lack of sector-recognised minimum standards for all classifications of degrees. Although I have been clear that it is not for the OfS to attempt to develop new minimum standards for all classifications of degrees, I am equally clear that the sector itself has a responsibility to grip this issue.”

But it’s odd to tackle this issue through the grade inflation measure. Johnson isn’t confident in the aggregate standards of awards made by institutions. This implies, surely, that he isn’t confident in any of the individual awards either. He’s drawing attention to the – well-known – arbitrariness of the degree classification system. This is even more starkly put in the lessons learned document:

“Assessors should not consider the proportion of 2:1s and firsts to provide evidence as to the quality of teaching; the proportion of each grade awarded is determined entirely by indivudal [sic] degree awarding providers and can provide no positive evidence as to the excellence of teaching or outcomes at that provider.”

What’s the exam question?

My gut feeling is that adding grade inflation to the TEF is a poorly formed ‘solution’ to the identified problem. If you accept that there’s a problem, it is much bigger than the solution proposed. Other useful questions we might ask are:

  • If there’s evidence that employers are dissatisfied with the classification system, is there additional information we can give them about students’ performance, knowledge and capabilities which would overcome the problem?
  • If we’re keen to get national comparability of awards, do we need to explore what it would take to have national curricula, or create some supplementary examination which would provide comparability?
  • Or do we want to find ways of providing comparability within an institution and subject area? Should we dispose of classifications in favour of something more granular which gives the position within the cohort?

Punishing the grade inflators is a bad idea; it’s a waste of everyone’s time. It’s an additional layer of absurdity to TEF which has become a dumping ground for various complaints against the sector. The real issue – rightly identified by Johnson and DfE – is that comparability of standards between institutions is a fiction. The problem, though, is that eliminating this is an affront to institutional autonomy. If that really is the aim, let’s have a proper debate about it and a higher standard of debate at that.

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