Grade inflation is endemic in our higher education system. What’s more, its pace appears to be accelerating and neither high tariff nor low tariff institutions are immune. The regular newspaper articles showcasing the latest growth in firsts and 2:1s have become an expected feature of the summer, yet the sector still shows a failure to truly grip this nettle. Too often, debates over whether it really exists are still taking the place of genuine attempts to reform.
There are at least three principal reasons why unchecked grade inflation should cause concern in those who care about the sector:
- It plays into the hands of those who wish to devalue the sector. For anyone wishing to denigrate the value of a degree, or to complain too many people are going to university, grade inflation presents an open goal. If a 2:1 is clearly not worth what it was forty years ago, it is easy to extrapolate – correctly or not – to the worth of HE as a whole.
- It threatens institutional autonomy. The autonomy to set standards and grade degrees is one of the pillars of institutional autonomy. If grade inflation continues to worsen, it may reach a stage where the government, supported by public pressure, could no longer ignore it. It’s hard to see how government could act decisively in this area without fundamentally impinging upon institutional autonomy – and that line, once crossed, would be hard to restore.
- It undermines the credibility of the sector. The strength of the HE sector in public debate should lie in its ability to muster logical arguments well-informed by robust evidence. When the sector casts aside the evidence to make a self-interested argument on grade inflation, it fundamentally weakens the sector’s credibility to engage in other areas it may care about, such as student migration.
More than most other ‘hot media topics’, grade inflation has far reaching implications. People might be concerned about vice-chancellor salaries, for example, without necessarily questioning the rigour or robustness of the education being offered. In contrast, grade inflation strikes at the very heart of higher education’s integrity.
Is it really happening?
The raw facts are undeniable. Almost three-quarter of students now secure a first or upper second, compared to 66 per cent in 2011/12 and fewer than half in the mid-1990s. Looking only at first class degree, in 2016-17 the proportion of students receiving a first has increased to 26% up from 17% in 2011/12. If we go back to 1994, the statistics are even starker: then, only 7% of students received a first.
But if these are the facts, what of the putative explanations?
One often advanced is that it simply reflects rising attainment on entry. This is implausible: between 1994 and today the average prior attainment of those entering HE decreased as participation widened. This may have had other benefits, but it could not have driven a more than three-fold increase in the number of firsts. More detailed statistics also disprove this theory: a recent HEFCE report found that the proportion of 2:1s and firsts awarded rose for students with all but the very highest levels of prior attainment, with the largest increase in firsts being amongst students with BBC at A-Level.
The other argument often proffered is that students are working harder, or that teaching has improved dramatically. There may be some truth to these statements, but if it were to explain the level of increase, we would expect to see a consequent improvement in the ability of graduates. Yet we do not. A recent survey found that 25% of employers had needed to provide remedial training on functional skills for graduates. OECD Reports have found that only 1/4 of graduates have high level skills in literacy, while 7% are lacking basic skills in English and Maths. To quote Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Director for Education and Skills, “You can say in the UK that qualification levels have risen enormously – a lot more people are getting tertiary qualifications, university degrees – but actually a lot of that isn’t visible in better skills.”
These explanations clearly do not explain the tremendous rise in the proportion of good degrees. But even if they did, there would be a problem. The purpose of degree classification is not to measure the performance of graduates against an arbitrary standard set out in the 1990s, but to provide meaningful differentiation for employers, further study and for the graduates themselves. It is difficult to argue that a system in which nearly 4 out of 5 graduates get the top two grades is fulfilling that purpose.
What can be done?
The hard truth is that grade inflation must not simply be halted, but reversed.
No-one can deny that universities are in an invidious position. League tables, which sadly persist in using the proportion of 2:1s and firsts as a measure of quality, provide a constant pressure to ratchet up the grade, even before we consider the way that grade inflation can be used to flatter other key measures, such as the NSS (unsurprisingly, students tend to be more satisfied when they’re given good grades). And naturally, no university wants to disadvantage its own graduates by awarding too many 2:2s in a world where many employers use the 2:1 as a hard cut off.
Government’s recent initiatives, such as the UK Standing Committee on Quality and Standards and inclusion of grade inflation in the TEF, are worthy – but are unlikely to be enough by themselves. The problem has become embedded. Moving to a grade point average is likewise no answer – grade inflation is as rife in the US as it is here, and no university can tackle it alone, as Princeton has found. Decisive, meaningful, collective action is the only way forward – and just to make it more challenging, it must be done in a way that preserves institutional autonomy over standards.
The most obvious way forward would be for a sufficiently large subset of the sector to agree that they will not award more than a certain proportion of their students firsts and 2:1s each year – perhaps 15% firsts and 40% 2:1s. This could, if desired, be averaged across subjects, or even be a three-year rolling average, to account for natural variation between years. This would restore meaningful differentiation into the system, place a natural gap on league-table driven inflation whilst fully preserving each institution’s autonomy over standards. Oxford and Oxford Brookes do not need to debate the relative standards of their degrees; they would simply both agree to maintain the proportions for the students they admit, and set standards accordingly.
A couple of obvious questions present themselves:
- What is a “sufficiently large subset”? There is no clear answer to this, but it needs to be large enough, and contain sufficiently many prestigious institutions, to force both league tables and employers to take notice. Perhaps 50 institutions including at least half the Russell group might be sufficient, but other combinations would do.
- How to get from here to there? Moving from a system in which more than 30% of students get firsts to one where only 15% do could prove painful. One option, therefore, would be to tweak the degree classification to ensure differentiation, whilst maintaining the principle of limiting the proportion receiving the highest grades. Perhaps the starred first could make a come back, or perhaps the 2:1 could be split further (or renamed).
It is easier to propose solutions than to implement them, and even more so when implementing them requires collective action. But if the sector is to restore faith in the degree classification system, and in higher education itself, something along these lines must be attempted.