Can we ever go back to less “inflated” grades?

More action - and a commitment to return to pre-pandemic classification proportions - is coming on grade inflation. David Kernohan wonders if we have lost sight of the fundamentals.

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

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.

Historic inflation

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.

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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.

Dangerous curve

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.

4 responses to “Can we ever go back to less “inflated” grades?

  1. Even if you assume that UUK have committed to the right thing (highly debatable as per the above), agreeing to match 2018-19 by 2022-23 ignores the reality that most degrees are classified on the basis of marks gained over 2-4 years.

    If you accept that marks are inflated 2019-20 to 2021-22 (and assume 2021-22 has been totally normal) that means marking at a sub-2018-19 level next year to force outcomes down which is, at best, weird.

    Feels like setting people up for fairly radical change (and potentially legitimate student appeals and complaints) or failure.

  2. First you have to decide what your final mark represents.

    An employer wants to know whether they are interviewing someone from the top 5%, 20%, 50%, 75% of people who took the degree. Ideally, that should be uniform across institutions but that’s probably too much to ask, but differences in, say, a geology degree from Kingston and from Leicester should be minimised.

    The government wants to show that lots of students get good grades, and universities want to show that their students get better grades than the university down the road to encourage bums on seats.

    Students want a job.

    I would suggest that what the government and universities want should be ignored and the focus should be on employers and students since, ultimately, they are the ones that will end up working together for decades. Universities that fail employers and students should be closed and the government can find some other statistical method for its international pissing contest.

    Within that context, the fix is pretty obvious and the dichotomy between ‘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’ is a false one.

    Employers (and I speak from experience) are sick to *death* of terrible, incompetent, applicants armed with good degree results. We want grades on a curve and rigorous inspections of courses to ensure that they impart the skills and knowledge that they purport to. That gives us both sides of the coin.

    In an ideal world, of course; nothing’s ever that easy.

  3. From a practical point of view, I find the whole discussion a bit pointless.

    If we are looking for “precision” in the results, the existing structure and process of classifying a particular student on a particular course at a particular University is the wrong place to start.

    Each University, for each course sets its own entry requirements. The top Universities attract the top students.

    The curriculum and teaching for courses with the same name, at different Universities, can be very different.

    The assessors for each course, even at the same University, can change from year to year.

    There is no National Agreed Standards for what constitutes a first or second.

    There is no National Exchange for converting a first in law at Cambridge, with one from Bolton or a first in Maths with a first in English.

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