For those who are not familiar, each year the Office for Students (OfS) uses an algorithm which looks at a provider’s historic performance and changes in cohort demographic and predicts the percentage of students that should be graduating with a first or an upper second class degree on a provider level.
The algorithm predicts outcomes on an individual level by taking into consideration factors such as a student’s race, gender, socio-economic background, and whether they have a disability. We then see the aggregate of this calculation compared to what actually happened.
If more students receive these grades than anticipated, then it is deemed “unexplained” – or this year, “unmerited.” Contentious.
Inflation or Improvement?
In the decade between 2010 – 2020, OfS found that the percentage of full time undergraduates attaining a first class degree doubled. Now it has released an updated analysis of attainment statistics to include the academic year 2020-21, and has found that students attaining a first or upper second class degree is up from 67 per cent in 2010-11 to 84.4 per cent in 2020-21. The two key items:
- Three-quarters of providers have had significant increases in the awarding of first and upper second class degrees.
- Almost all providers saw a significant increase in the awarding of first class degrees
A sparkling endorsement of improved teaching standards or something to be “tackled?” OfS asserts the latter. The regulator sees the increase as “unexplained” and therefore jeopardising the “credibility, value, and reliability of the qualifications” which can lead to a loss of public confidence in higher education – and has vowed to take a strengthened regulatory approach to tackle grade inflation.
The statistical modelling approach that OfS uses was “adapted to account for the sector-level changes in awarding patterns” this year, due to the impact of Covid-19 lockdown disruptions. This is all well and good but there are multifactorial reasons for improvements in attainments, particularly in the last year.
The pandemic did not just change institutional awarding behaviour but also provided lessons in accessibility. Universities have risen to the challenge of ratifying – or in some cases, introducing – support for students with disabilities and caring responsibilities. In 2020-21 hundreds of institutions also actioned responses to conversations on gendered violence and safety on campus; the surrounding cities spurred by the tragic murder of Sarah Everard; and further concerns surrounding drink and needle spiking. There was further anti-racism advocacy and action after the murder of George Floyd, and widening conversations and progress towards decolonisation.
To me these are “observable factors” which may impact attainment. Is it so inconceivable that this activity would improve the learning environments in which disadvantaged students can work and would also alter the outcomes?
At a sector-level, we expect students to learn and grow as they progress through their degree, and we expect educators to upskill, and institutions to develop better understanding surrounding learning and adapt their provision accordingly. Since 2010 we have seen enhanced understandings of neurodiversity, and increased use of digital learning resources and learning analytics, all of which go someway to helping students reach their potential. And, it seems like a sector which continuously strives to improve – and was very well funded by OfS’ predecessor to improve in the previous 30 years – is surely a sector that should hold the confidence of the public.
The thing is, I do get it. Even if teaching techniques, the learning environment, and higher education culture improves to the point that every student is able to attain a first class degree, we will still need ways to decipher which of those have truly excelled.
After all, at one point in time, pre-1870, we divided the country into those who could read and those who could not, which is a rather silly metric now that we have universal education. So a solution is needed. Perhaps we need to date stamp degree classifications for context. Perhaps we need to include percentile breakdowns. Perhaps we need an entire new classification system that reflects the strong progression we have made as a sector.
Because in principle, I agree with the OfS B4 condition, which came into effect on 1 May 2022. I do not think that “the same level of student achievement should not be rewarded with higher degree classifications over time.” But only if we are absolutely clear that this is what is happening. Because I also don’t think that disadvantaged students should be bound to benchmarks set a decade ago in different socio-political circumstances, and in a sector with less understanding of teaching and learning, and accessibility.
But, regardless of what I think, OfS has, once again, pledged to investigate “unexplained attainments” – that is, attainment that deviates from the OfS algorithm of what students should achieve. Condition B4 will allow the OfS to use its regulatory powers to look into the reliability of a provider’s assessment practice and credibility of their academic regulations, and intervene if necessary. So we all have that to look forward to.