This article is more than 2 years old

Spiralling inflation

In the latest in his series of narratives on higher education, Phil Pilkington looks at press coverage of higher education and asks where it might lead.
This article is more than 2 years old

Phil Pilkington is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at Coventry and Deputy Chair at Middlesex University SU

Almost every day journalists step into the university sector to comment without an understanding of what has happened or what is happening.

They make damning comments about snowflakes, millennials, overpaid top brass, grade inflation, censorship and the suppression of free speech.

The coverage on the dramatic increase in firsts and 2.1 degrees is an obvious example. The papers don’t say that there are instances of the handing over of money in exchange for better degree results but something very close to that is insinuated. Correlation becomes causality – university leaders put pressure on dons to relax grading scores so that improved student performance will be reflected in greatly inflated salaries for the bosses, the performance indicator being the increase in first class graduates. This grade is thus devalued when it was once a mark of a fine mind, and an entry to the hallowed groves of academe and to join those at the high table.

In below-the-line comments, there is a rush of support from clearly disappointed lecturers to say that students are dumber and lazier than they used to be and that their bosses are trying to persuade the exam markers to lower their standards. The language in the articles – of high table, dons and the like – suggests that the journalists have in mind Oxbridge and not the former polytechnics or plate glass universities.

The question is, if the journalists are wrong, what could be causing spiralling grade inflation and what does this debate mean in the context of a mass higher education system?

Teaching, assessment and learners

There have been major changes to the accountability and transparency of teaching over the last ten years. This was partly as a result of the need to provide KIS (key information statistics); learning outcomes, and the explicit ways in which they are assessed for each grade level. That information and guidance is normally (and ideally) available prior to the delivery of lectures and setting of assignments. The delivery of teaching is supported by a revolution in digital technology such as online lecture materials and email tutorials and the requirement for new (and for some HEIs all) teaching staff to undergo training as teachers.

The work by the sector to support teaching staff, the creation of teaching fellows to act as mentors on campus, the understanding of how higher learning takes place, and the commitment by academic staff to create a changing environment for student engagement in learning all has helped. Underpinning the curriculum frameworks are the benchmark statements from the Quality Assurance Agency. We now turn round assignments in a meaningful timeframe so students can learn from and apply the feedback. And we ensure that the feedback is meaningful and relevant to the assignments’ expected outcomes. I suspect that none of these initiatives are known to the education correspondents.


For students there is naturally a greater desire to obtain high grades if they are graduate with huge debt. It would be irrational for students to think otherwise. Is it not feasible that increased effort on an assignment will result in improved performance, especially if it is focused on what is to be learnt and how it is to be assessed? There is plenty of evidence that students spend more time on study, as well as that time being used more effectively. If greater time on task did not improve performance, then what is the implication for learning? 

The implication seems to be that learning by the truly brilliant does not require much time and that we should prevent the less than brilliant also grasping the insights that the chosen ones had previously gained with ease. The suggestion is that there are no sequences or procedures to learning such that to understand x did not require learning y. But what of medicine, mathematics, or music?

Who gets a first?

In the articles, a first is an entrée to the high table. In reality it is more likely to lead to another two years on an MPhil, five years on a doctorate and a couple of years of post doc fellowship on poverty wages. In the articles, to achieve a first is to achieve the highest cognitive ability – but it is a strange claim that an assessment discovers cognitive ability (whatever that might be) rather than a competence or understanding in a discipline.

Underpinning it is the idea that there is a natural order of those who are naturally gifted in getting first class awards. This assumes that cognitive performance is natural and not identified with or tied to an academic subject. It assumes that high quality teaching will not improve cognitive abilities so an increase must have been obtained fraudulently because there is a natural order of and limited number of first class minds. This is just a circularity.

The notion of IQ as a generic measure of smarts has long been discredited, with multiple intelligences taking over as an alternative model. Social context also matters. The historical construction of disciplines have created measures of discipline intelligence. How the levels of these discipline-bounded intelligences are measured is not at issue, it is that there is a determinism (of a loose sort) of what counts as smart related to the overall discourse of the discipline. Such smarts are not, unlike the other essentialism of employability, necessarily transferable. Paul Dirac would have been bewildered by cognitive behavioural therapy, and Samuel Beckett was rather dim about modern painting but in neither case does it matter to their enduring brilliance in physics or drama.

Where will this end?

Perhaps all this anxiety is to be expected when the purpose of measuring students’ academic performance is in part a measure of an institution. That in turn is  partly a justification for or legitimation of the monetisation of knowledge acquisition and which is justified by the long term and unknowable success of each student’s career.

But we should think about where the blithe accusations could lead us. If we accept that a natural order of brilliance is restricted by proportionality, we should remember that restriction, in historical terms, was established by the establishment.

Perhaps instead we should see the negative coverage as merely the latest in a long line of attempts to resist the expansion of education and comment accordingly below the line. Above all, what must be avoided is believing students to be everything that is said of them – dumb, lazy, snowflakes, and so on. It is a dangerous game to allow 50% of eighteen year olds in the UK to be declared as some sort of other.

2 responses to “Spiralling inflation

  1. This is not a new issue.The then HEQC produced a report in 1996 which showed that the modal degree award had moved from 2:2 to 2:1 between 1973 and 1993. The late Lewis Elton suggested that changes in assessment methods could have been a major cause (as they were at school level, leading Gove to force a return to exams rather than a more broadbased approach recognising skills other than a bold dash through memory and scribble speed). Mantz Yorke therefore suggested that grades would continue to go úp as a result of better curriculum design, better teaching and more appropriate assessment. How prescient!

    A letter from a VC in 2000 to his institution’s external examiners asked them to award more firsts by using benchmark instituions to suggest that his students were beiing under-rewarded, so there may be some institutional pressures. A similar argument is used for VC salaries but with shifts being, perhaps, less deserved.

    I hope this below the line comment is better than those castigated, rightly, by Phil Pilkington, in commenting on panic political and press reactions ( the volume of which has, in general, risen faster than exam grades).

  2. Thank you for the helpful historical record of what appears to be a continuing theme of a culture of anxiety over ‘falling standards’ in the sector. Surely there is a causal connection between the method and the cultures of assessment and the outcomes. There would be no hierarchy of universities otherwise. I have noted elsewhere that the growth of A level students in the 1950s had planned for an expected decline in standards and no need therefore for a proportionate increase in university places which created disproportionately an unplanned increase in the demand for places in the then public sector HE colleges as results improved.

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