What’s next for universities tackling grade inflation?

Rowan Fisher explains the progress made in tackling grade inflation before the pandemic and the sector’s commitment to continue the work.

Rowan Fisher is a Policy Officer at Universities UK

When the UKSQCA’s first report investigating reasons behind increases in the proportion of graduates receiving Firsts and 2:1 degrees was published in 2018, many in the higher education sector were at different places in responding to the challenge of grade inflation – and there had not yet been a collective response from universities.

The increase in upper degrees risked eroding the usefulness of the classification system for employers considering student and graduate attainment. And even more importantly, there was an increasing need to ensure that students, as well as the wider public, could continue to have full confidence in the value of a university degree.

Fast forward a couple of years, and it is now obvious that all universities acknowledge that grade inflation is a real challenge that needs to be addressed. Having previously seen a steady rise in the proportion of Firsts and 2:1 degrees over a decade, in 2018-19 there was a levelling off in the proportion of Firsts and 2:1 degrees awarded, with no increase witnessed.

The exceptional circumstances of 2020 led institutions to adjust degree algorithms and take new measures to ensure fairness for students completing their studies in difficult circumstances. This might impact the proportion of Firsts and 2:1 degrees awarded during the pandemic, for those students who have worked incredibly hard and graduated during these truly exceptional circumstances.

We fully support our universities in taking those reasonable measures, however we also want to ensure that progress made in tackling grade inflation before the pandemic and the sector’s commitment to continue this work is highlighted.

Making progress

Universities UK and GuildHE, on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment, has published a progress review of universities’ efforts to protect the value of their qualifications so that we do not lose sight of the progress that has been made.

Since May 2019 when the statement of intent was published and universities agreed new commitments to address grade inflation, a wide range of work has been taken forward across the sector and within the different UK nations.

This includes:

  • For the first time, UK-wide guidance on principles for effective degree algorithms has been published. The report notes that 96 per cent of providers surveyed intend to use the new guidance.
  • UK-wide degree classification descriptors have been published detailing for the first time what all four classifications (First, 2:1, 2:2 and Third) look like. Since their publication in October 2019 76 per cent of institutions across the UK have used or are intending to use them.
  • 87 per cent of providers have or intend to make changes to their external examiner process, most often to develop additional guidance and ask examiners to reflect on degree classification trends.
  • 61 providers within England and Wales have published degree outcomes statements, detailing their final degree classifications for graduates, and setting out how data has been scrutinised. All providers are expected to have published by the end of January 2021.

During this time we have seen numerous publications on degree algorithms, degree classifications and degree outcomes statements, but publishing guidance alone will not create change. It is how universities engage and respond to this work that really matters.

You would be forgiven for thinking that after the government U-turn on centre assessed grades this summer, and the various other challenges of 2020, this might have diminished as a priority. This is not the case, and universities cannot afford to slip into contentment.

Learning lessons

One of the first issues to address will be understanding how changes to teaching and learning brought on by the pandemic will relate to degree classifications in the future. Universities will need to draw on all the lessons learned over this period and recognise increasingly diverse forms of teaching and learning.

We will be encouraging providers in England and Wales to revisit their degree outcomes statements a year after publication to include data from 2019-20. We need to be able to reflect on the impact of the pandemic on degree classifications as well as evaluating progress against planned activities.

We will also need to engage with league table compilers to assess the appropriate use and presentation of a “good degrees” metric within student information, and we will need to explore methods for enhancing internal quality insurance processes while enabling governing bodies to take a robust approach when interrogating degree outcomes statements. UUK and GuildHE will undertake a UK-wide stocktake of activity in one year’s time to monitor the extent and impact of this work.

Demonstrating impact in this area will always be complex, but we hope this report provides an overall picture of the progress the sector has made together. Every institution has a role to play in protecting the value of qualifications and, if we can continue to ensure the solutions we devise to tackle and prevent grade inflation are sector-led, we can be confident that they will meet the needs of the higher education sector, as well as students, employers, and the public.

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