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Grade inflation and academic standards – the minister’s challenge to the sector

8 September 2017
William Hammonds

William Hammonds

Programme Manager
Universities UK

In his speech to university leaders at the Universities UK annual conference on Thursday, Universities Minister Jo Johnson highlighted the challenge of maintaining public confidence in the value of a university education to students and the wider public.


A key pillar of this, he argued, was the need to protect the degree as a genuine mark of academic attainment for students and for employers. In this respect, the minister highlighted the increasing volume of 1st and 2.1s as a potential risk to the public's confidence in academic standards.



Proportion of 1st (orange) and 2.1 (blue) classifications being awarded

 

The trends around inflation are real, sector wide and have been going for more than the past 10 years. For example, the table above illustrates the proportion of 1sts and 2.1s being awarded over the past 10 years. Equally the factors driving this trend are multiple and complex.

Some of this inflation will have been driven by changes in assessment practices, subject mix and standardisation within institutions. It is also true that this trend will be a result of investment in teaching, the prior attainment of students and their motivation while studying.

As noted by the minister, the responsibility for standards is in the hands of the sector, a key concession that UUK secured in the Higher Education and Research Act. Centrally directed approaches to standards risks undermining diversity of institutional missions, pedagogy and curricula. Nevertheless, the Minister challenged the sector is to ensure that degree outcomes genuinely reflect improvements in student attainment and pointed to three avenues of activity.

The first area focused on accountability of degree outputs, including publication of outcomes by the OfS and inclusion of trends as contextual data in the TEF. This data is already in HEFCE's annual provider review. Its inclusion in the TEF is more sensitive but will be used by the panel as a contextual measure (rather than in the core algorithm). It will be up to the panel to assess the myriad factors that may have driven institutional increases alongside the other parts of the assessment framework.

The minister also mentioned the importance of degree algorithms, the process universities use to translate module outcomes into a final degree classification. They are an important part of the picture but are not the sole driver of inflation and interact closely with course design and influence the behaviour of students.

However, the sector recognises the need to improve transparency and consistency of practice which is why UUK's forthcoming report with Guild HE in this area includes recommendations to:

 

  • Improve transparency of the algorithm used by institutions and the justification of changes to ensure that they are rooted in sound pedagogy and strong academic governance.

  • ​Include principles for the design of robust degree algorithms in a revised quality code to ensure that there is a clear framework for practice and accountability around the sector.
  • Ensure that the rules governing assessment of borderline cases, many of which have been introduced to improve transparency and fairness to students, do not have the inadvertent effect of lowering the threshold of degree classifications.

 

The minister also challenged the sector to develop shared definitions of degree classification boundaries. To date, the sector has focused on threshold requirements to achieve a degree, rather than the requirements for a particular classification. This is an inherently complex question as it touches on assessment of attainment against subject curricula. Nevertheless, it is an area that merits attention, particularly as it would aid the work of external examiners.

The issue of legitimate grade improvement and illegitimate inflation is complex and highly sensitive. Robust and sustainable answers will depend on isolating and understanding the different causes. Answers will need to balance consistency and comparability versus diversity, autonomy and innovation. Similarly the answer will ultimately be rooted in robust autonomous academic governance whilst recognising how individual institutional decisions can aggregate into sector wider impacts.

There are also fundamental questions that the sector may need to consider. This includes the extent to which institution and sector criteria do, can and should keep pace with improving student attainment. This also raises tricky questions about the priority of comparing student attainment within a cohort or over time. It is inevitably a balance but there are trade-offs that will need to be acknowledged and addressed when responding to the minister's challenge.

The issue of standards in assessment and attainment are complicated, sensitive and important. They are also UK-wide questions so this is not just a question for the OfS and the English sector. There are real risks that clumsy directive measures may undermine autonomy and diversity – important features that contribute to the sector's success. Nevertheless, it is in the collective interest of the sector to respond to the Minister's challenge to ensure that students, employers and the public have confidence in the degree classification system.


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