My colleagues at Universities UK, alongside GuildHE and QAA, are today outlining their commitment to tackling the complex area of grade inflation. As they begin to take this work forward on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment, I wanted to expand on the drivers for this work and what we hope that it will achieve.
Grade inflation in history
Grade inflation is a long-standing issue in the UK higher education sector and has recently become a point of media discussion when annual Higher Education Statistics Agency statistics are published. This year’s statistics show that over a quarter of graduates received first class degrees in 2016-17, and that there has been a three per cent increase in first or upper second class degree outcomes in the past three years.
Historical data demonstrate that the phenomenon is found across the UK, and across the entire spectrum of the sector. It is of long standing, reaching back to the early 1990s at least. It is erroneous to say, as various commentators have recently, that it is the product of an increase in fees for UK undergraduates in England in 2012.
It is difficult to disentangle genuine grade improvement from artificial grade inflation. There are a number of possible reasons for grade improvement, including better links between secondary and tertiary education, changes to assessment mechanisms such as improved clarity of learning outcomes, or improved academic and student support mechanisms – or where an institution has improved qualifications of its intake, or addressed inadvertent bias.
Such improvements are welcome, and should be recognised for the value they add to the student experience and the quality of UK higher education. So there is a clear need for a rigorous and robust examination of the distinction between grade improvement and artificial grade inflation.
UKSCQA and its members are well-placed to lead on this work and to address these issues. As a co-regulatory body that provides sector-led oversight of the higher education quality arrangements that continue to be shared across the UK, it draws together partners from the four funding bodies, sector body representatives, academics, and students.
UKSCQA is currently leading on a consultation to review the UK Quality Code, and already oversees a programme of work to improve comparability of degree standards across the UK. At the same time, an element of externality is necessary so that students and employers can have full trust in the outcomes, and the programme team will draw upon external expertise to ensure that this is achieved.
Exploring grade inflation
There are already controls in place to mitigate the risk of grade inflation. These include the external examining system when working as its best, and UKSCQA is overseeing an HEA project to strengthen this system. More consistency in degree classification algorithms will reduce the influence of one current variable in shaping outcomes. However, it is equally important that the sector is able to examine, challenge and address grade inflation where it may exist. Therefore, the committee has asked its sector members, and QAA, to develop a substantive programme of work to explore the complex issues surrounding grade improvement and inflation. The programme will:
- clarify the grade classification boundaries in use across the sector and make recommendations for the inclusion of criteria in credit and qualification frameworks;
- investigate the drivers for the historical increases in the proportion of good degree outcomes across the UK;
- propose a framework for how autonomous and diverse institutions working with funders and regulators can collectively control the risks of sector-wide grade inflation.
This work, which will be coordinated by UKSCQA members UUK, GuildHE, and QAA, will draw upon the expertise of independent researchers and a UK and sector-wide reference group whose membership reflects the increasing diversity of higher education by including representatives from the further education and alternative provider sectors. The programme will also produce:
- sector-agreed criteria for degree classifications, which will appear in qualification frameworks
- information for students, employers and the public about degree classifications and how they are managed by institutions and the sector;
- guidance for institutions in controlling grade inflation and recommendations on UK-wide and national measures to manage risks.
There are a number of measures which can be used to reduce the risk of grade inflation, and these need to be recognised. These include the publication of degree outcomes data, external examiners (currently being explored through the HEA external examining project) and convergence of degree algorithms (explored in a recent study undertaken by Universities UK and GuildHE). A recent follow-up study to the UUK/GuildHE degree classification algorithms report has suggested that greater convergence is essential in addressing grade inflation.
Yet there is also a need for the sector to take meaningful and timely action to respond to stakeholder concerns on grade inflation, as other contributions to Wonkhe and elsewhere have suggested in recent days. UKSCQA will lead the coordination of a sector response on this issue.
It is committed to a thorough, robust and independent investigation of the issues, so that students, employers, the sector and its wider stakeholders can have confidence in the comparability of standards across the UK.