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Addressing grade inflation: a statement of intent

Charlotte Snelling

Charlotte Snelling

Policy Researcher
Universities UK

In the last decade the number of students graduating with either a first or a 2.1 has risen by 55%, and the proportion receiving a first has doubled from 13% to 26%.

The growing interest in what's behind this so called 'grade inflation' is understandable. It's also reasonable to question whether these 'upper degrees' – awarded to three-quarters of those graduating in the UK in 2016–17 – will remain an effective way of assessing the skills and knowledge of graduates in the future.

In light of these questions, Universities UK has been working on a project with GuildHE and the QAA on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA), to explore the factors that impact degree classification, and to inform a new statement of intent that commits to protecting the value of degree qualifications.

Their findings – published today1 – reveal that a variety of factors contribute to an individual's degree outcome. Analysis based on interviews, workshops and new data suggests that – as might be expected – a student's own motivation, ability and potential are all correlated to their degree outcome. But final classification is not simply down to the student: the amount an institution invests in student support, the design of a degree course, the way it's assessed, and the rules institutions use to calculate marks into a final classification also play a significant role.

The diversity of approaches among the UK's universities makes it difficult to identify a solution that fits for all. However, it is possible to identify certain process which, while not necessarily 'inflationary' on their own, are potentially contributing to the gradual increase in upper degrees when taken together. These include rounding up when determining a final classification, allowing low marks to be discounted when calculating an average, making use of the full marking scale, and using the percentage of upper degrees as a performance target.

For this reason, UUK, as part of the UKSCQA, is encouraging institutions to protect the value of their qualifications by:

  • reviewing and publishing evidence on their degree outcomes, with external advice

  • bringing more consistency and explanation into 'degree algorithms' – the calculations universities use to turn marks into classification

  • supporting the professional development of academic staff and external examiners, to make assessment design and marking more consistent

  • reviewing the structure of the degree classification system with students and employers to make sure it meets its needs

To make sure this approach is appropriate and works for the huge diversity of UK higher education providers, as well as within the devolved nations, the UKSCQA will shortly be launching a UK-wide consultation. Alongside workshops, it will provide universities, sector agencies, students, graduate employers and any other interested party with a chance to shape how the above measures are formulated into a statement of intent, and reflect on how that could work in practice.

Above all, we must not underestimate or overlook the hard work of students, teaching staff, and all those staff who provide academic and student support. It's for this reason that the sector must be proactive in reviewing and strengthening its practices. By affirming commitment to this through the statement of intent, it is hoped the degrees they award – and students' successes – can continue to be recognised, valued, and trusted.

1. Degree classification: transparent, consistent and fair academic standards

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