It’s time to bake in a batch of grade inflation for generation Covid

Jim Dickinson argues that the only way to treat students fairly during the pandemic is to ensure a big batch of grade inflation.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Less than a month ago the Office for Students was rattling on about “unexplained” grade inflation again, and has posted up the press coverage to prove it.

Oddly, a blog post from OfS’ Competition and Registration Manager doesn’t mention Covid-19.

Meanwhile Universities UK and GuildHE, on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA), have now published a progress review of universities’ efforts to protect the value of their qualifications. It demonstrates “significant progress” over the past 18 months following the publication of a statement of intent, which saw universities across the UK agree new commitments to address grade inflation.

A blog post from Rowan Fisher, policy researcher at UUK does at least mention Covid-19 – but it’s not clear that the sector is anticipating or laying the ground for a major increase in grade inflation this year.

I think that would be a huge mistake. The only outcome of universities treating students fairly over Covid-19 would be widespread, justifiable and explainable grade inflation. We need OfS to signal it, QAA to support it, UKSCQA to explain it and Universities UK, Guild HE and their member universities to deliver it. Let me explain.

Circus tricks

There’s a few moments in the Office of the Independent Adjudicator’s excellent new Good Practice Framework chapter on what we used to call “mit circs” that hint at some of the issues being faced by students this year, even if the guidance doesn’t become OIA “law” until next year.

It is always reasonable to expect students in general to be able to cope with normal life events, to manage their workloads properly, and to expect a level of pressure around assessments. But a student might ask for additional consideration for something that has affected their performance in an exam, assessment or project, or on a practical placement, or their engagement with the course more generally. It might affect a whole group. And:

There may … be circumstances that affect students more generally across the provider, or even more widely, such as outbreaks of epidemic disease.

If students were telling us the truth in the research we convened back in October, it certainly looks like that’s the case. The qual is a dispiriting treasure trove of stories of poor mental health, failed technology, digital divide, family circumstances, financial problems and family issues that have been generated by the pandemic. And while some individuals have tried, few in the sector would argue that prior warning of the existence of restrictions implemented because of the pandemic should mean we can disregard their impact on students.

Generally, that presents a policy headache across universities which we looked at in detail on the site a few weeks back from a couple of angles. It will be important to find ways to ensure that providers’ approaches to requests for additional consideration don’t compromise academic standards – but should ensure that students a fair opportunity to show the standards they can reach. To show, in other words, their “best selves” as if the unusual or surprising circumstances hadn’t been there.

The story so far

So far, a number of universities have been extending, introducing or refining changes to their mit circs policies to account for the pandemic (and in some cases parcelling those up and putting a “no detriment” sticker on them). But what is clear from the qual in our survey – and from talking to those who’ve been doing marking already this term – is that the pandemic’s restrictions are having a significantly different impact on different types of student. And what we do about that matters.

There are some types of student in the qual that are very confident about their progress and attainment this year. In some cases they are mature learners finding the flexibility of the shift to online spectacularly helpful. In other cases there are what look like bored but comfortable students, with little else to do, focussing disproportionately on their academic studies.

There are also some types of student in the qual who are not confident at all. In some cases the isolation and disruption has taken a major toll on their teaching and learning experience. Some are finding it hard to concentrate in cramped and unsuitable living conditions. Some haven’t the tech or the money we would normally expect them to have. Some have been self-isolating. Some have been caring for loved ones. Some have been struck by bereavement. The pandemic accentuates and exacerbates inequalities. And so on.

Let’s imagine for a minute that the extremes I can see in the qual on confidence translate into the assessment scripts that the average academic is marking over the Christmas “break”. It would be bizarre, wrong and unfair for us to even consider adjustments that might drag “down” those who seem to be doing better than usual because of the pandemic.

For those doing worse than usual, it would be unforgivable to ignore the problem. But we might end up doing so. On the one hand, providers have “consumer law defence” incentives to insist and maintain that there’s been nothing whatsoever wrong with their teaching and learning support this term, and woe betide anyone that suggests so. So interrogating deficiencies in it becomes difficult, and putting in fixes for it this coming term impossible because you’re institutionally insisting the problem isn’t there.

On the other hand, you could make lots of allowances for student problems by changing the rules on your mitigating circumstances. You can extend deadlines, allow more self-certification, uncap resits and so on. But in doing so, you know you may well end up causing some grade inflation. So you vaguely insist that “OfS won’t let you” to your students’ union, and cross your fingers.

If nothing else, we’ll have to reassess what it is that’s a mitigating factor. If a university used to provide well equipped lecture theatres and a decent library space for working in – and now the lecture theatre is on your ageing laptop and the library is all but closed forcing a student to have to work from their kitchen table – we’ve moved some of the academic delivery we promised into their house. Is that a “mit circ” or a teaching and support failure?

Enter Gavin

It’s worth taking a moment to look at where DfE has got to over A levels. Because some students are suffering from learning loss through no fault of their own, students will be given advance notice of topics in exams, and there will be further papers for students who miss exams because of Covid-19. These are versions of classic mitigations used in university mit circs policies – and the result is DfE also announcing that grading in 2021 will be in line with that of 2020. In other words, it knows that the measures will result in some grade inflation, and it won’t be artificially attempting to drag down the averages to avoid it. Instead, it’s baking it in.

And that’s now what we need to see in higher education. As a first step, every higher education provider should be committing to properly interrogating not just assessment attempts in semester/term one, but also attainment. This might mean a struggle mid year, but we need to know about attainment spread, and if there are any shared characteristics, experiences or grumbles from those doing worse than usual. It should involve data and then qualitative discussion with student representatives. Course by course. Department by department. And at institutional level.

Next, providers ought to be ensuring that structural adjustments are made, en masse, that will ensure that students doing worse than usual through no fault of their own are nevertheless given a fair opportunity to show the standards they can reach. The idea that students should wait until September 2021 to have the university’s mit circs policy reviewed in that way is perverse. It obviously has to happen now.

Where the in year data is showing differences by student characteristic, or subject, or in relation to some kind of practical aspect, providers should commit to ensuring that the normal “standard” of teaching, learning and support is somehow made up for and able to be accessed and met – especially if some of the trends relate to Access and Participation objectives. It’s your equivalent of the DfE catch up plan – but converted for higher education and delivered as a robust strategy across next term.

And once all that is done (the only fair set of things to do by this already badly treated cohort) it is bound to result in grade inflation – widespread, justifiable and explainable grade inflation. Ministers and OfS should signal that providers that gather the kind of evidence I’ve referenced and implement the mitigations I’ve discussed will not be penalised, QAA and the UKSCQA should swing in with some support for the process and students and academics should be involved in the discussion at every level, guided by the principles set out by OIA above.

If that sounds like a lot of hassle or a lot of work, I know – and I sympathise. It might feel more surmountable in the new year. But the alternative is the “nudge nudge wink wink” from some academics to students that amount to “we’ll take it all into account, don’t you worry” that will suffer from consistency and reliability problems. The last thing that’s helpful would be accounting for a pandemic via secret initiatives from a selection of benign academics that everyone denies afterwards.

In the end, the kind of thing I’m talking about above is exactly what is required when you argue that you, the university, sets and maintains academic standards. And if even Gavin Williamson has worked out that baking in grade inflation is required this year, so should universities.

2 responses to “It’s time to bake in a batch of grade inflation for generation Covid

  1. I fear many employers will see this as ‘pandering to the initial customers’ (students) and by devaluing the grades given they as ‘customers’ looking for future employee’s will either have to off-set for likely inflation or simply not employ anyone graduating during Covid. The latter will hurt Universities for years to come as poor employment ‘outcomes’ may do significant reputational damage.

  2. Like it or not, those graduating in 2020, 2021 and (insert your own closing date here) will; in their own minds and in the minds of employers; have a large *Covid-19-shaped asterisk beside their qualification.
    So, what to do?
    We could adjust / inflate / normalise their grades; in other words, pretend they have learned more than they have learned; and let the employer then re-adjust their grades back down again to reflect what they have actually learned, what they actually know, what they can actually do. Thus confirming the already widely-held view that University grades are measured on a ruler made mostly from rubber. Probably not a message that Universities, guardians of standards, want to reinforce.
    Or we could mark against the same inviolable-ish standards we use every year. Students would (presumably) get lower grades in the Covid years,. Because they had learned less. Because their teaching and learning had been disrupted. And employers would have to provide their new recruits with initial training and development to fill the Covid-19-induced gaps in what they had learned.
    The second approach has the merit of honesty. Yes, it feels uncomfortable. But that may be because we confuse grades with worth. A student is not a worse human being because they got a lower rather than an upper second. They just have different (current) capabilities, and different (current) development needs.
    Let’s be truthful. Let’s acknowledge that the *Covid-19-shaped asterisk beside their qualification means that, because of the pandemic, they (may have) learned less. No shame. Just a fact, to be dealt with. A transcript, showing what they had actually learned, would be useful.

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