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Kneejerk reactions to grade inflation don’t help solve the problem

If we step back from the grade inflation row, it's pretty clear that we need to revisit the UK's degree classification system, says Jim Dickinson
This article is more than 4 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

There are two main types of jerks of the knee whenever a story about university grade inflation hits the news stands.

The first is probably best summed up by this classic-of-the-genre Guardian comment piece, written in response to OfS’ latest batch of “unexplained” grade inflation data and accompanying Damian Hinds handwringing. “The soaring number of first-class degrees is a direct result of our marketised university system”, says the byline. You know the argument here – inflation is a product of the government’s marketisation agenda and “neoliberal policymaking” over the past 20 years.

The emphasis on delivering “value for money” to students, linked to the introduction of and trebling of tuition fees means that young people have been “encouraged to view their education as a financial investment that should deliver a return”. Students view themselves as “consumers”, academics as “service providers”, and the result is the incentivisation of grade inflation and a “lowering of academic standards”.

In this world view, it’s important to not hold out the prospect that students are working harder, or that teaching has improved, or that universities are starting to work out how to “level up” those that have suffered systematic attainment gaps with better support. None of that could be true – because if it was, presumably we’d have marketisation to thank. How upsetting it is that so many local UCU branches enthusiastically retweeted the piece at the mere cat nip of the headline when a big slice of grade inflation is probably down to talented academics getting better at what they do.

It’s not a million miles away from more-means-bad, with the added bonus of being able to frame students as snowflake consumers demanding easy courses. “You cannot treat students as consumers while also safeguarding academic standards, as raising academic standards involves challenging students and taking them out of their comfort zone”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – this is a myth. The vast majority of students are only satisfied if they are challenged and taken out of their comfort zone.

Yebbut yebbut

There’s another jerk of the knee, of course. The other half of my social feed dismisses the idea altogether that grade inflation is even a thing. It points out the preposterousness of OfS’ methodology and talks about how seriously students take their studies these days. It suggests that learning gain has transformed the prospects of those with terrible A Levels into star graduates.

It reminds us that changes to assessment practice mean that students now know how to hit the standard and that changes to learning support mean that those struggling don’t simply drop out. And it wags its finger on the achievements of the disadvantaged. Who said closing attainment gaps was supposed to involve changing the standards, so that just as the disadvantaged got near the rest their grade was artificially lowered to keep the Telegraph happy?

But all this is twaddle too, at least on its own. We all know – surely we all know – that nudging borderline candidates over the edge is now heavily incentivised, and that changes to degree algorithms have been made to ensure that that good-honours score is more “competitive”. As the Observer’s Barbara Ellen put it – even allowing for academic improvement, it all looks a tad “suspicious”. And how it looks does matter if we want to continue to pay for part of it with such a big wedge of public money.

The reality of grade inflation is that it’s messy and complex – a problem not suited to newspaper headlines or data-driven regulatory interventions – and to be fair to the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA), it’s busy wading through that complexity as we speak.

It’s what comes next that matters

The big question is what happens next. First, let’s imagine that grade inflation at least slows down a bit, and hits OfS’ target for inflation that (in its definition) is somehow “explained”. In this theory, the number of firsts from “top universities” continues to grow, but the OfS press operation expresses delight at the modest slowdown, and goes into bat for the universities it regulates against the wall of naysayers from the think tanks and press. I think I would consider this to be… unlikely.

We could suppose that the march of marketisation will abate, and that some number controls are issued from a John McDonnell treasury. But what difference will that make? We’re presumably not going to contract the Russell Group, or start norm-referencing student cohorts. As the sector expands (likely given the demand pressure we’re expecting in the next decade), there will be endless comments that centre on the decline of sorting as a function. As Barbara Ellen also put it – “the outside world is hard-pressed to tell [top students] apart from the others. What are employers supposed to do – focus on A-level results, and ignore the inexplicably elevated degrees? What then is the point of a degree?”.

There’s a neat spin on the “students are working harder” line that stresses that human endeavour and achievement is celebrated elsewhere. In this framing, we don’t look at top sprinters getting ever faster every year and accuse the sport of running-inflation. This makes sense, but the difference is that in athletics there is still a winner and a loser in every race. Some would love all university courses to shift to mere pass-fail, but back here in the real world we are going to need to continue to do some sorting of those that pass through our hallowed halls.

Bobbing along

It’s now well over a decade since Bob Burgess’ review group bottled banishing the UK’s archaic degree classification system to the past. The report deserves a re-read as it was all in there – the bluntness of the system, the failure to recognise the skills that graduates gain, the problem it presents for employers and the increasing irrelevance of it in a massified system.

“A summative system, which gives the appearance of signing-of’ a person’s education with a simple numerical indicator, is at odds with lifelong learning”, it said. It encourages students and employers to “focus on one final outcome and perceived end point, rather than opening them to the concept of a range of different types and levels of achievement” which, it said, is part of an “ongoing process of learning that will continue beyond the attainment of their degree”. It could easily have been a chapter in Augar.

It concluded:

  • There is a need to do justice to the full range of student experience by allowing a wider recognition of achievement.
  • The higher education sector has been transformed out of all recognition from that which gave rise to the traditional honours degree classification mechanism, which was devised for a traditional concept of higher education.
  • The present system cannot capture achievement in some key areas of interest to students and employers and many employers could be missing out on the skills and experience of potential recruits merely because these students had not attained a First/Upper Second.
  • The focus on the top two degree classes wrongly reinforces an impression that a Lower Second or a Third Class degree is not an achievement when, in fact students with such degrees have met the standard required for honours degree level, graduate qualifications.
  • Institutional methods for calculating the degree classification could be clearer in order to help students’ understanding of what they are being awarded and what is being recognised by the institution.
  • The means of representing student achievement should be radically reformed – ideally to replace the summative judgement with a more detailed set of information.

The solution was interesting, but as well as looking at describing breadth, it involved not replacing the old system in order to not “destabilise” the system. In other words, it had the right analysis but the wrong solution, and it’s probably time to revisit that report with a dose of revolution rather than evolution.

In the end it’s this simple. If you’re someone that thinks we should keep firsts, 2:1s, 2:2s and thirds, but also think it’s silly to reduce the “performance” of a department or an institution to Gold, Silver, Bronze or “working towards” medals – all made up of dodgy metrics and over-simplified algorithms, you should probably reconcile the contradiction in your position and call for the killing off of the degree classification system.

One response to “Kneejerk reactions to grade inflation don’t help solve the problem

  1. Thank you so much for this! The OfS gave us data by institution and it is, of course, far more nuanced than that – different disciplines, even different programmes within a discipline vary wildly – so, a discipline or programme with fewer Good Honours means those students and those staff don’t work as hard? Really?! So, yes, it is messy, and it is complex, and we really need much more research – which is one reason why I (personally) welcome the ‘degree outcomes statement’ idea from UKSCQA as a helpful prompt. I also very much agree that it is somewhat depressing that we describe a First and a 2:1 as Good Honours as we’ve now led our students to believe that a 2:2 or a Third is Not Good. And we do need to review the Honours system (to paraphrase Peter Williams from 2008, it’s rotten!) – frankly, I find it bizarre that two categories occupy 70% of the available marks (40% for the fail category and 30% for the First category) and we then have three categories squished into the remaining 30% (Third, 2:2 and 2:1).

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