What can be done about grade inflation?

The annual Soviet show trial over OfS’ grade inflation figures is getting really tiresome now.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

OfS finger wagging about grades being “unexplained” is a particular cheek. So explain it then! Do some investigation! Oh, you announced some in September. Another thing you’ve started and not completed.

This method of threats over conceptual problems that never get refined via actual case work is utterly pointless. It’s like telling people they’ll go to jail if they’re not a “good person”.

Actually no it’s worse than that. It’s like keeping the whole class in at lunchtime over the antics of one naughty kid, and then writing to the local paper to condemn the whole class, all without bothering to explain what you actually thought was naughty in the first place.

Actually no it’s worse than that. It’s like that only the naughtiness was actually that one kid doing well in an assignment for change after you berated them for not trying, and you looking at their family background and thinking “they must be cheating” without working out if they actually were.

How is more students getting a first or 2:1 bad but more students continuing to the second year and completing good, all at the same time?

I could easily say more students continuing and completing is bad (decline in standards, woke prizes for all etc) and more getting a first or 2:1 is good (better teaching and support, better designed assessment etc).

None of it hangs together. It’s like two massive sandbags on both ends of a see saw, heavier every time just to look “hard” in front of ministers.

I just don’t see how improving the proportion of students that continue, complete and progress is compatible with holding the proportion that get good honours static.

The message to students is preposterous. “You’re a failure if you don’t continue, complete or progress” but “if you get good honours you’re probs still really a failure”. Come on.

Wouldn’t it be better to say “it’s OK to drop out if this isn’t working” and then “well done for getting good marks”? Or is the idea that universities gently blind eye a lack of talent up to the final assessment and then blind eye real achievement to keep firsts and 2:1s down?

Maybe the real message is “do well enough to pay more of your loans back” but “not so well that you devalue MY degree”.

But let’s look to the long term. Imagine that percentages of those getting firsts and upper seconds returned to 2010 levels. The central moan – too many have them – wouldn’t change.

Then imagine it went further and the number, not percentage, of those with them returned to 2010 levels. The other moan – that “new” universities aren’t as “good” as others wouldn’t change.

The endgame might be all the firsts and upper seconds in the Russell Group, but that wouldn’t work politically. Too many families have aspirations for their kids regardless of disdain for Blair and his 50 per cent target.

And anyway, as I say, bearing down on non continuation will lead to more doing well – by definition.

Unless the government or OfS think the sector’s cheating on improving retention (if not yes teaching and support is improving, a rising tide etc) more will get 2:1s and firsts.

The only way out of this never ending doom loop is to abolish the archaic and increasingly meaningless sorting hat of the UK degree classification system.

Is it really the best we can do, in a mass system? By definition a mass system needs a robust way of communicating a graduate’s attributes, not their superiority.

Obviously the Russell Group would never go there voluntarily. But if I was a VC everywhere else I’d abolish it all and replace it with Bob Burgess’ wider recommendations in Beyond the honours degree classification urgently and universally.

I mean if nothing else OfS can’t take an annual pop at grade inflation if most of the sector abandons the daft system!

It would also send a really powerful signal – that the rest of the sector is committed to developing the whole student, explaining their skills and attributes and so on.

Those still trying to pretend to be the Russell Group should probably give up. It’s a silly game, the press increasingly won’t believe it, and you may as well leave them to their nostalgic elitism all on their own.

You could sort it at Universities UK conference in September. Tell them all the minister wants to meet RG VCs for breakfast, lock them in the side room and do a big deal.

And anyway, given large numbers of you are about to argue that reducing a university’s performance down to Gold, Silver, Bronze, Requires Improvement or Remove from Register is stupid and fails to communicate what you do, now you know how students feel when you reduce their efforts down to First, 2:1, 2:2, Third and Fail.

Because in the end, the Telegraph and the Times and whoever are really saying “stop making out your students are as good as me and my kids”.

You can either keep trying to be like them, or be proud of who you are. But you can’t do both. They won’t have it.

2 responses to “What can be done about grade inflation?

  1. Surely more students continuing and completing( implicitly less able/academic) would reduce the proportions getting firsts and 2is if academic standards are maintained.

  2. It’s almost as if OfS were trying to create a case study in perverse incentives: reward increases in continuation, and punish rising final achievement in respect of undergraduate classification. Though the perversity continues in that metrics that involve no external oversight (continuation) are part of B3/recruitment cap regulation, while the one that has external oversight (classification, through external examiners) doesn’t figure in B3.

    Not sure that moving to the Burgess approach solves the problem either – feels like a gift to a government looking for more fronts in the War Against Woke who would need little encouragement to portray the sector as dodging rather than addressing the issue they claim to have found.

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