We still don’t know why the pandemic years led to more undergraduates than ever before completing their courses with the archetypal (first, upper second) good degree.
Certainly the data is striking. Most providers saw a large spike in such results in 2019-20, followed by a slight drop in 2020-21. Today Universities UK and Guild HE felt that some of this increase – at least – could be attributed to measures taken to ensure students did not face significant disadvantage during the worst months of the pandemic and associated restrictions.
To be clear we are talking about an absolute increase here, rather than the “unmerited grades” lamented by the Office for Students in recent months. And the question of “merit” here is at the heart of the wider issue.
Just to put us all in the same place, here is the data for every provider analysed by OfS. The top graph shows the increase in “unexplained” first and 2:1 awards (for analysis of which, do see my colleague Sunday’s article) and the bottom graph shows what we are concerned with today – the observed first and 2:1 degrees awarded since 2010-11.
You’ll spot, in most cases, a dip in such awards in 2018-19 – the year in which the UK Standing Committee on Quality Assurance (UKSCQA) publish a great deal of work on the comparability and robustness of undergraduate degree qualifications. This came alongside a sector statement of intent that sought clarity on awarding processes and on the impact of the external examiner system. Of providers that responded, 87 per cent were in full agreement with this statement – with the full backing of Universities UK, GuildHE, and the Quality Assurance Agency.
Universities UK note this as a partial cause of the 2018-19 “levelling off”, and as evidence of the effectiveness of this UKSCQA intervention. But the report also notes:
There are important lessons from the pandemic that will have supported genuine improvements in students’ performances. We are committed to exploring where and how these might be developed in the future”
Having it both ways
It all really comes back to the idea of “merit”. If we conclude that at least some of the interventions put in place by higher education providers during the pandemic were actually better at allowing students to reach and be recognised for their potential, then we surely have to accept that the 2018-19 method of assessing and scoring students was sub-optimal.
This means that, if we say things like “we commit to reviewing our classification levels against the pre-pandemic progress that had seen trends stabilising. Our members will work to return to these levels as soon as possible,” then we are committing to artificially limiting the number of firsts and 2:1s awarded at a level that does not recognise evidence of more diverse excellence among our graduates.
The usual argument in favour of this is confusion or disbelief among employers, an argument neatly destroyed with last months’ Graduate Outcomes news that we did not see any evidence that graduates with “good” degrees struggled to get jobs or places in further study. Indeed, the proportion in further studies rose very lightly for both first and 2:1s, and the proportion in full time employment remained steady – against the backdrop of a record number of first degree graduates.
It is very beguiling to see the “pandemic years” as an aberration, and to seek a return to normalcy. But higher education has – in recent times, at least – been known for absolute grades rather than grading to a curve. A levels have taken the curve route in recent years, for no other reason that I can see other than to avoid the usual summer crop of grade inflation headlines.
This debate can be characterised as seeing a “first” as signifying a particular level of skills or knowledge as against seeing a “first” as referring to a fixed top percentage of graduates from each provider. To me, the first approach is better at signalling to employers and other providers that a person has a particular suitability for a given role or course, whereas the second avoids disquieting peaks and troughs in year-on-year cohort performance.
UUK is committing to a revision of “degree outcomes statements” – an attempt to square this circle by using an escalating series of descriptors (“demonstrated knowledge, “demonstrated strong knowledge”, “demonstrating thorough knowledge”, and “demonstrating advanced knowledge” – for example from the QAA FHEQ level 6 descriptors) to punt the question away from arguments about measures and towards arguments about definitions. And we’ll get a review of wider progress on the UKSCQA statement in 2022-23.
What we don’t get is any explanation as to what makes 2018-19s results (or any other year’s results) suitable to define the purporting of graduates achieving the highest level of degree in any other awarding cycle. OfS has been fixated on 2010-11 in a similar way, but those years are not coming back any time soon. What we really need is confidence in our ability to accurately assess the achievement of the students we face next year.