Build Back Higher: Regulation fit for a different future

Johnny Rich, Dorothy Chirwa, and Paul Greatrix ask questions of the way regulation could change in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Johnny Rich is Chief Executive of outreach organisation Push, and of the Engineering Professors’ Council, and a consultant.


Dorothy Chirwa is President of Newcastle University Student Union.


Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Fairer grades

Johnny Rich

The response to the pandemic has undoubtedly driven a host of innovative approaches to teaching, assessment and much else that we may want to keep. But surely no one will ever hail the exams debacle of 2020 and the centre-assessed grades that followed as a welcome novelty?

Maybe we should. One day, we might look back on this cohort as the experiment we never could have done otherwise. 2020 may be the year in which almost everyone got the grade they had the potential to get, rather than what they scored on the day of an exam: whether they were ill or the exam room was too hot, or when they were fine, but their examiner’s dog had just died.

As Denis Sherwood has demonstrated, almost half of all exam grades in some subjects are wrong and even Ofqual’s head, Glenys Stacey has acknowledged that exam results have a fuzziness of a grade either way.

Meanwhile good teachers know their pupils and understand what they’re capable of at their best. Surely students should be admitted to university based on what they might achieve if given a chance rather than following a prize-giving ceremony for one day’s performance.

I’d like to think that after this year we will revisit level three assessments (that’s A levels and their equivalents, but my argument applies to other levels too) and ask whether summative exams tell us what we need to know in order to allocate places in higher education fairly. We’ll reconsider the role of continual assessment and, rather than dismiss teachers’ professionalism, we’ll work harder to eliminate any bias in their judgements – because it’s not as if examiners are immune to bias.

As a result of pandemic panic grading, this year’s entry cohort may turn out to be the most diverse yet and if their learning proves to be as successful as other years, it will be hard to argue why student recruitment shouldn’t take more account of context and less of exam results.

The language of grade inflation

Dorothy Chirwa

Throughout the pandemic I have been thinking a lot about language and how we use it.

This is probably a hangover of being a history graduate with a vested interest in how language changes over time. Going through a resurgence in the post safety-net world, “grade inflation” has been a major gripe for me as OfS has decided that the rise in students getting firsts and 2:1s cannot be explained. For the OfS, it couldn’t be that students are doing better; for them something nefarious has to be at work.

My biggest problem with the term grade inflation is that it’s loaded. It presupposes and implies that students are undeserving of the better grades they are receiving. That students doing better doesn’t make sense, whereas I would argue the opposite. In economic growth theory, economists make a sharp contrast between inflation, an increase in prices without change in underlying fundamentals, and growth, an increase in the real value of output. I assert that there is no such thing as grade inflation – what we are in fact observing is grade growth. Since 2013, young people have been required to remain in some form of post-16 education, which has led to more students heading to university and better prepared to do so.

When we talk about grade inflation, the way that language discriminates against marginalised students at university is something that I’m not sure gets given enough consideration. We aren’t necessarily talking about how more students are getting higher grades – what we are actually saying is that students who never really participated in higher education are now coming into the system, are doing better than we might have predicted, and we see that as a bad thing. That as awarding gaps have shrunk, this has been a bad thing. That students who had been traditionally excluded from success at universities are the problem.

If we are going to build back higher, we have to build higher education communities that don’t look down on students doing better. Students are working harder than ever which has been shown throughout the pandemic, we have to change our language to reflect this. We can call it grade growth, or grade appreciation.

Anyone for a regulation staycation?

Paul Greatrix

I’ve long argued for the need for a significant reduction in the substantial regulatory burden on universities. The volume of regulation with which higher education is required to comply has grown and grown over the years.

In the current circumstances one way that government could help the sector is by addressing the impact of this costly regulation.

I recently pitched the idea of a regulatory holiday, but I am prepared – in the current circumstances and the face of zero interest from anyone in this modest proposal – to downgrade it to a staycation. We don’t need to push things too far.

We desperately need genuinely risk-based regulation but we seem a very long way from that at the moment.

As it looks at the moment we have the promise of legislation on free speech, changes to admissions, minimum entry requirements for higher education, changes to foundation years, potential reforms to student finance, possible amendments to the quality framework as well as changes to healthcare professional bodies – government is now consulting on detailed policy proposals to modernise each of the healthcare professional regulators’ legislative frameworks – and the prospect of funding changes on the way too. And all of this is on top of an already huge regulatory load. This is really very far from what the sector needs.

But now we have the welcome news of a new task force to address research over-regulation led by Adam Tickell. This can only be a good thing. While I would of course be willing to consider taking on a similar role in relation to all other higher education regulation this seems as likely a prospect as a June fortnight in the Maldives.

Therefore the focus right now should be on pausing all new regulation and suspending at least some of the regulations in force. This would save universities time, money and effort and given all the additional burdens of coping with and coming out of the pandemic would be the most welcome boost for a hard-pressed sector. So, please, please, please let us get what we want this time – a regulation staycation would be just the ticket for universities and their staff.

At Wonkfest Digital on 9-10 June we’ll be thinking through how universities can Build Back Higher after the Covid-19 pandemic. Find out more about Wonkfest Digital and get your ticket here.

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