Did marketisation really “cause” grade inflation?

Since the publication of OfS' latest salvo on grade inflation, there have been the usual two types of takes floating about Twitter.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

One is that the customer needs to be pampered in a marketised system – higher education got easier because students and league tables demanded it.

The other is that students are working harder and teaching and support has improved. To question that is to condemn the hard work of students, academics and professional services staff unfairly.

I do think those that blame marketisation need to stop and think for a minute. Are we really saying that a huge chunk of the students with good honours these days don’t deserve them?

To some extent it’s a debate about norm referencing and criterion referencing, and it’s also a debate about levelling up or down when some groups end up doing better.

My colleague Sunday Blake makes a very good case for access improvements leading to the “inflation” that we’ve seen. And one commenter under Sunday’s piece offers some clues:

Having recently retired from a 45-year career in university teaching, I have seen an enormous improvement in how students are taught. Course content has been made more explicit. Students are given better information about what is expected of them. Study materials are available online. There is more recognition of different learning styles. Most of these improvements have taken effect within the past 15 years, and these probably account for most of the variance in academic attainment.

But what if none of these takes are what’s really been going on?

We are I think often bedevilled by averages in HE – we look at the average and assume that, say, an average rise in attainment or firsts is something that’s happened roughly universally.

But if for example you take what happened during the pandemic in not so sure.

It’s fairly clear having interacted with course reps and student officers over the past couple of years that plenty of students did much better academically than they would have done without a lockdown. It’s not that their course got easier – it’s that academically, they found it easier to excel.

Many were comfortable in parental houses and fairly bored. They may well have had access to mental health support from family and friends. They might well have missed out on several important aspects of the student experience, and they’re right to be angry about that. They may even be worse off from a social development perspective. But they nailed their essays, did well on their diss and had oodles of time to revise for exams.

Then there’s the students who really suffered. These are the students who couldn’t get part time work, or for whom isolation really impacted their learning. They needed a type of help – not to be given extra marks or easier assessment – but more time or more attempts to demonstrate their aptitude.

The thing about the former group is that nobody is saying their marks or grades are unjust. But for some reason the beneficiaries of “safety net” and no “detriment policies” are made out somehow to be cheats – because they’re not as far behind as the comfortable group than they would have been pre-pandemic.

Ok, you might say. Fair enough. But what about the decade of grace inflation? How do you explain that?

Well, I think you can make a decent case – or at least form a good hypothesis – that the pandemic effect I’ve described has been in operation for the whole of that decade.

Without reform to the degree classification system, designed to reflect a different age and cohort, a mass system – perhaps more than a marketised system – will have encouraged the well off and comfortable to find ways to “invest” more in doing well.

I’m talking expensive extra mental health support, private tutoring, luxury student accommodation and the ability to avoid having to undertake paid work – or at least not let it get in the way of doing well. It’s the whizzy laptop, the subscription to Perlego and the advice from uncle Brian. The purchase of advantage doesn’t cease on the Monday of Freshers week.

For some the opposite is true. A mass system doing better on access means plenty are waiting for mental health support, have no private tutoring, are in scuzzy housing or at home without the friends to call on to advise essay format. Their laptop is slow, their text books are second hand, and the advice they need is from a very busy academic.

It’s perfectly possible that what we’ve done – as well as improving (often targeted) support for those students – is become better at explaining how to hit the high standards, and through sensible reform to policies to take account of circumstances (both extenuating and disadvantaging) we’ve given more time and more attempts to do well.

We don’t have a level playing field, but we don’t spend ages trying to mark the well off ones down. That would be daft.

I also figure that as well as norm and criterion referencing, we used to think of a first as something magical like a gas of brilliance rather than something to work hard for and aim at. Maybe marketisation caused a happy accident of abandoning those elitist tropes in the films.

If anything the frustrating thing – which might be about marketisation or the decline of the funding council or whatever – is that we lack capacity and collaboration to test the hypothesis.

And without that all we have are the averages and the conjecture. And that’s a huge shame.

Underpinning the problem is the ancient degree classification system – designed for an elitist age to signal who was better than the others.

But in a mass system that doesn’t work. Imagine we’d expanded as much as we have done without marketisation. Then imagine we’d levelled up attainment from those that don’t do as well without marketisation. We’d still have the right wing press saying that everything has got easier, and we’d still have employers moaning that the system doesn’t help them sift like it used to.

The truth is that we need a degree results system that can signal what’s great about a student – what they can do, or give, or contribute – that doesn’t also have to signal the scarcity of being “the best of the best”. Society and employers will always need to select, and there’s nothing wrong with qualifications helping out with that. But maybe less of the “they’re the better ones” and more of the “these are the ideal ones for what I’m looking for” would help.

Leave a Reply