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Last updated on Friday 21 Jan 2022 at 8:34am
Achieving a degree reflects years of hard work, resilience, and dedication. However, since the early 2000s, a steady increase in the proportion of first and 2:1 awards has risked undermining the value of a degree, with concerns about potential grade inflation. Since 2019, universities have been working to make sure all students can take pride in their achievements.
Some of the increases in firsts and 2:1s reflect genuine student improvements and better teaching methods and assessment. It would be wrong to artificially cap results. But where providers can’t easily explain the increases, they should look at their data and policies to understand and then – if necessary – reduce the trend.
We can’t ignore the increase from 61% to 82% in upper awards between 2006–07 and 2019–20. The trend has not all been upwards though. In 2018–19 the proportion of upper awards began to level off at 76%, with no increase from the previous year.
In 2019, the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) published a statement of intent to protect confidence in the value of degrees. UKSCQA provides sector-led oversight of higher education quality assessment arrangements by bringing together partners from across the UK.
Under UKSCQA, work began to:
Since 2019, we have worked closely with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) to deliver workshops across the sector. The workshops have helped to put the commitments of the statement of intent in place. Since 2020, QAA has delivered 19 workshops reaching 777 attendees. This high level of engagement shows the importance being placed on this work.
We carried out a progress review in 2020 and even in just one year, significant activity had happened across the sector. As we begin 2022, 47% of providers believe they are in a stronger place to protect degree standards than in 2019. However, a further 47% see themselves in a similar position to 2019, suggesting there is more to do to support this work and understand and tackle unexplained grade inflation.
We ran a survey and heard from 44 providers. We found out what actions they are taking and the progress they are making across UKSCQA’s four commitments.
We found that the key developments the sector has made across the four commitments are:
Continue reading for a more detailed summary.
Providers in England and Wales now publish degree outcome statements. The short documents follow internal reviews within each provider. 113 degree outcomes statements have been published since 2019, which is a major injection of evidence into the sector.
While not required, 81% of recently surveyed providers set actions in their statements. Most commonly to:
We have asked providers to update their statements annually with the latest data and progress on actions. From the providers we spoke to, 95% will update their statements in 2022 to reflect outcomes in the 2020–21 academic year.
We are committed to working with GuildHE and QAA to continue to receive feedback on the usefulness of the statements and any support that will help providers engage with them better.
In Scotland, universities review degree outcomes as part of programme reviews. In addition, QAA Scotland staff meet each Scottish institution annually to discuss quality, standards and education enhancement.
Since 2020 ‘algorithm’ has become a watchword for students and those working in education. A degree algorithm in higher education refers to a set of rules which bring together the marks of a student into a degree result. Creating an algorithm requires careful consideration and should have a rationale based on assessment expertise.
Research from 2017 and 2020 showed the wide range of algorithm practice across institutions, which raised questions about the comparability of qualifications. To help with consistency UKSCQA published the first-ever UK-wide set of principles for effective degree algorithm design in July 2020. Our survey of providers suggests 84% of the sector have or will engage with the principles as they review their practices.
The principles hold providers to a strong set of obligations that make sure a student’s grade is a reliable summary of their performance. The principles have helped produce algorithms that are consistent, transparent and reliable.
We are seeing action to:
The pandemic has meant many universities had to put their algorithm reviews on hold. This is because emergency changes needed to be introduced. We understand that plans are now back on track and expect more action on this in the future.
When is a first a first or a 2:2 a 2:2? Assessing academic work should always fall to the judgement of academic experts. However, to help, UKSCQA has published degree classification descriptors. The descriptors give students, for the first time, a clear summary of what each classification means. For example, it describes what level of ‘knowledge and understanding’ or ‘practical skills’ is needed for a 2:1, and how this differs from a 2:2.
The descriptors work alongside other frameworks such as FHEQ, FQHEIS and subject benchmark statements. Their status as a sector-owned reference point is important. They are not a strict formula – this would stifle the freedom of providers to innovate their assessment practice. Instead, they should be seen as a guide to help with transparency and consistency.
Feedback suggests that 80% of institutions are using or will use the standards. We are seeing the descriptors used in the following ways:
For providers in England, the Office for Students (OfS) has consulted on making the descriptors a sector-recognised standard. It intends to use them to challenge providers where they have concerns about degree standards. Their status as a reference point needs to be protected, but going forward, they will be a useful addition to how quality and standards are protected in England.
Independent scrutiny is a cornerstone of protecting degree standards. The external examiner system carries out this function, but our research suggests more can be done. Multiple reviews of the external examiner system over the years haven’t brought about the changes needed for it to be as effective as it could be.
We need a strong external examiner system that can support providers to make further changes to learning in the post-pandemic environment. The external examiner system must empower examiners to call out any concerns they have about degree standards.
We are seeing providers expand the role of external examiners. This includes taking on responsibilities related to degree standards, approving degree outcomes statements and examining data in more detail.
In August 2021, along with GuildHE, we asked QAA to launch work to strengthen the external examining system. QAA have formed an advisory group and kick-started a series of engagements with the sector. From this, they will develop a series of principles which will build a shared understanding of the external examiner role.
Within this work, we also want to consider where external examiners have a role in addressing the challenges of grade inflation.
Since 2019, there has been a step change in how we think about degree standards. However, the nature of these changes means it will take time to see results – especially because the pandemic has temporarily disrupted progress.
This is a long term effort, but providers are acting now to build confidence in the system. We will continue to monitor progress and provide further guidance and support to the sector where needed.
In our first progress review, we set out what else the sector can do in the future, such as:
Here's a collection of case studies from providers on what work they have been doing to protect degree standards.
AUB reviewed its degree algorithm against the principles and examined the data to ensure changes didn’t disadvantage particular groups. It noted some areas where its approach didn’t align, and made minor changes which would meet the principles without undermining the intention of their algorithm. The new algorithm will be brought in for students enrolling in 2022.
As a young university, Hartpury University chose to publish a degree outcomes statement as part of its ongoing work to ensure awards reflect industry and professional standards and expectations. The university monitors achievement annually, at programme and department level, through an achievement report and a quality report through its committee and governance structure. It makes evidence-informed decisions about how to amend and enforce its academic regulations. The statement of intent and connected research has helped the university contextualise its practice with other providers. This led to more confident decision-making when enacting regulations during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Over the last few years, NTU has developed its grade-based assessment framework in three key ways. First, the university has enhanced the rigour of the degree algorithm. A student is awarded a first if they have performed at a first-class standard on the majority of their modules.
Second, different award boards had historically used different variations of the rules on borderline classifications to enable students with profiles at the top of a classification band to achieve a higher classification. There is no longer any exam board discretion to do this.
Third, NTU has shifted to a ‘linear’ system of numbers that stand in for each grade (0-16, instead of 0-100). In the 0-100 (non-linear) system some students benefit from the inflationary effects of the traditional ‘70-100’ first-class range. This range is used in different ways across the sector and is an important factor in any analysis of grade inflation.
Following the publication of the paper on algorithm principles, UCEM undertook a review of how its practice aligns with each of the principles. The exercise reassured UCEM’s quality standards and enhancement committee that its practice aligns with the principles. It also assured UCEM that its choice of algorithm model and approach to discounting and classification at borderline are all appropriate.
The review recommended areas for improvement, including committing to a standard five-yearly cycle of algorithm review and providing a summary within the student handbook of how marks will be used to classify a degree and why this approach is right for UCEM programmes.
There is surprisingly little research on exit velocity in degree algorithms – where the weight is placed on a student’s marks later on in their degree. The University of Chichester wanted to understand this more. Previous research shows that of 100 responding institutions, 87 used exit velocity in their algorithm for calculating degree classification. The standard definition is based on a belief that student marks generally improve from year two to year three. Data from 970 students completing in 2019–20 showed that the level 6 mark was, on average, higher by just 2.6% for an individual student. Exit velocity was therefore unlikely to change a student’s classification, unless at the boundary. Interestingly, the data showed differences across academic areas, leading us to conclude that further analysis is needed. You can read more about this work on Wonkhe.
In December 2020, following an in-depth review of the degree classifications awarded to its graduates, the University of Exeter published its first degree outcomes statement.
During the 2020–21 academic year, the university also undertook research and analysis to determine the impact on degree outcomes of its no detriment policy brought in during the pandemic. The policy introduced a ‘safety net’ for individual students by calculating a benchmark based on their assessment and examination grades before the pandemic. The university found that most students did not need to make use of the ‘safety net’, as they achieved a higher final credit-weighted stage mean. For those that did rely on their benchmark, just 1.4% of UK domiciled final year students saw a change in their degree classification. The policy achieved its aim as students more likely to have been impacted socially and economically by the pandemic benefitted the most.
The University of Worcester has taken several steps in response to the statement of intent. The university updated its generic grade descriptors to align with the classification descriptors. The descriptors inform a review of local grading criteria. Through this process, the university gained a greater awareness of the demands on academic staff when writing and navigating grade descriptors and recognised that no one size fits all. The university’s classification method was mapped against the algorithm principles and it’s currently reviewing revisions to the method.