19 January 2023 Publications
19 January 2023 Publications
19 January 2023 Publications
19 January 2023 Publications
3 August 2022 Explainer
3 August 2022 Explainer
Last updated on Thursday 19 Jan 2023 at 11:54am
Universities have taken significant action in the past year to protect degree standards, so that students, employers and the public can be confident of the value and high standards of UK degrees. It’s clear that when the value of a degree is called into question, universities take notice.
This follows concerns that academic standards have not prevented unexplained increases in First and 2:1 awards – known as grade inflation.
This publication looks at the positive progress universities have made on protecting degree standards since last year and beyond. It draws from a review of degree outcomes statements, a survey with 34 respondents and new data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).
Following increases in upper awards (First and 2:1) during the pandemic, universities are seeing levels return to levels closer than would be expected in normal circumstances.
Data from 2021–22 shows a UK-wide 3.9 percentage point (pp) decrease of upper awards compared to 2019–20. Upper awards also decreased in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but by less.
In 2021–22, over 919,940 students graduated from university – something they can all be proud of. Whether students achieve a Third or a First, they are meeting learning outcomes and rigorous academic standards.
Universities implemented the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment’s (UKSCQA) statement of intent from 2019. The higher education sector has delivered on all four commitments with high engagement.
Over 118 universities have published degree outcomes statements in England and Wales. These public documents scrutinise degree outcome levels. We've published the list of statements in full.
University policies are now much more transparent to students. Universities are explaining how they calculate the classification of awards, what the different degree classifications mean and how external examiners ensure consistency between institutions.
We are seeing a more strategic focus on quality and standards. Universities are investing in data analytics and refocusing governance to strengthen standards.
The numbers speak for themselves. Between 2011–12 and 2021–22, the proportion of upper awards has increased from 66% to 78%. Looking at first class awards, we've seen increases from 17% in 2011–12 to 32% in 2021–22.
However, compared to 2020–21, the number of Firsts awarded has decreased by 4pp.
Academics are continually improving their teaching as encouraged by the Teaching Excellence Framework, enhancement-led institutional reviews and quality enhancement reviews.
Internally, university strategies also drive improved outcomes across their student body. To support this, universities are investing in digital infrastructure and professional training for teaching and learning. And of course, each year, students continue to bring hard work and dedication to their studies.
In this time, universities have put considerable resources into work to close awarding gaps – such as by working to create more inclusive learning environments. Progress here does not compromise standards, but may alter the proportion of upper awards.
In the last few years, the pandemic has made progress more difficult. There was a 6pp increase in upper awards between 2018–19 and 2019–20. This happened following temporary but necessary measures to ensure students were not unfairly disadvantaged by the disruption.
It's unclear whether these factors alone explain the increases we have seen over time. To better understand the driving factors, the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) commissioned research in 2018. Then after sector consultation in 2019, the UKSCQA published its statement of intent based on the principles of a transparent, reliable and fair degree classification system.
Universities UK (UUK) and GuildHE also made a further commitment in 2022 related to the exceptional circumstances as we emerged from the pandemic. In England, we committed to returning to pre-pandemic levels of upper awards.
During the pandemic, universities introduced measures to mitigate the impact of subsequent disruption on students’ academic performance. At the same time, there was an increase in upper awards. It was important that universities adapted their policies so that students were not unfairly disadvantaged.
But those emergency measures must not have a long-term inflationary effect now that teaching and learning has returned to normal. That’s why in July 2022, UUK and GuildHE came together to make a commitment to degree classifications after the pandemic. This meant looking back at the progress we were making before the pandemic and asking higher education providers to reflect on how they will return to those pre-pandemic levels.
Since 2019, the higher education sector’s work has been guided by four commitments:
In 2019, we published UK-wide degree classification descriptors. The document explains the skills and attributes a student will demonstrate to achieve a First, 2:1, 2:2 or Third. The descriptions sit alongside other sector-owned frameworks and since May 2022 have a formal status as a sector-recognised standard in England.
Degree classification descriptors are not a strict criteria. Imposing something top down would stifle the freedom of higher education providers to innovate their assessment practice.
Instead, they are a common blueprint to help with transparency and consistency. When talking about a 2:1, for example, it isn’t unreasonable to expect the higher education sector to be referring to the same level of achievement.
Encouragingly, 97% of institutions that responded to our survey are integrating and aligning the descriptors into their academic rules.
But their use goes beyond this – for example:
While sector-level interventions are helpful, higher education providers also need space to reflect on their own data. We asked English and Welsh universities to produce degree outcomes statements.
These are short public documents signed off by governing boards that:
Institutions have now published over 118 degree outcomes statements. They are impressive and supply a huge evidence base for the sector.
Using data to intervene quickly
There’s been a drive for improved statistical information for exam boards and programme teams. Hosting data on dashboards allows universities to adopt a more proactive approach to degree standards.
During the pandemic, we saw how quickly academic rules can adapt without compromising their integrity. We are seeing examples of leaner governance processes, allowing for prompt interventions to protect standards.
Improving transparency for students and staff
Students are receiving clearer information about how classifications are calculated and what they mean. Staff also benefit from more transparency. Programme teams are taking greater ownership to understand how their practice compares with others. But we know to ensure the statements are relevant they need to be regularly updated.
87% of universities that responded to our survey have already revisited their statement at least once since it was introduced, with updates to data, policies, and actions.
University courses are diverse, so we can expect some variation in how institutions calculate their classifications. But this shouldn’t undermine the comparability of degrees.
To ensure fairness across university courses, we published six fundamental principles for effective degree algorithm design.
We know these principles are having an impact, with 93% of universities responding to our survey already reviewing their policies against the principles or intending to at their next regular review cycle for academic policies. With these principles, the dial has now shifted, and higher education providers are undertaking more frequent reviews.
A taster of what this looks like for universities includes:
As autonomous bodies, universities set their own curriculum. But with this diversity, how can we ensure degrees compare across universities?
The answer is a system of independent academic experts who critically compare standards. We call these individuals external examiners. Over time, the role has evolved, and we need to ensure we have a modern, robust, and future-proofed system. Universities UK (UUK), GuildHE and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)’s external examining principles put us firmly on this track.
The principles make sure degree standards and comparability are at the core of the external examiner role. They’re uncompromising on the need for external examiners’ independence and clear escalation processes when an external examiner has identified a potential concern. Despite the fact they were only published last year, we know that almost all our survey respondents plan to review their compliance.
Universities are evolving their external examiner practice by:
We said: We would publish an annual review of progress against the UKSCQA statement of intent.
We did: As with our previous annual reviews of progress, this publication demonstrates the significant strides the higher education sector has taken in the last few years to tackle long term increases in upper awards.
We said: Our members in England would publish degree outcomes statements by the end of 2022. These statements would describe how they will return to pre-pandemic levels.
We did: We've published a list of 118 degree outcomes statements by universities in England and Wales. The latest data shows the higher education sector is on track to return to pre-pandemic levels.
We've also continued to support higher education providers to reengage with commitments and activities paused during the pandemic. This has included running workshops, visiting institutions, and promoting our work in this area.
We said: We would work to support governing bodies to strengthen their scrutiny of degree classification trends.
We did: We're taking forward work to strengthen governance processes around degree standards. With Advance HE and GuildHE, we launched a series of roundtables to improve the training given to governors.
In our 2022 commitment, we wanted to better understand how governors protect degree standards. Governors sit within a wider governance system of committees, which drive forward the quality assurance process.
All universities we heard from provide governors with and annual quality report and discuss this with them. In England, boards also receive reports on compliance with the Office for Students (OfS) B conditions. Across England and Wales, governing bodies also have a role in reviewing and approving the degree outcomes statement.
Universities were confident their systems provided effective scrutiny of quality assurance. However, there was less evidence that the governing body was as effective as it could be in providing this.
This includes nominated roles for governors to attend academic board meetings, and convening joint meetings between the governing body and academic board. Universities are also establishing academic sub-committees to their board focused on academic assurance.
This means recruiting governors from inside or outside the higher education sector. Some governors have a link role related to quality, where they will have more involved responsibilities.
This includes specific sessions delivered by institutional leads on quality and standards. Universities are being clearer with governors at the point of recruitment about their responsibilities for academic assurance.
In our survey, we picked up a risk that responsibility for quality assurance often falls on governors with a background in higher education (such as academic nominations). Drawing from governor expertise is right. But it is also important that all governors can interrogate academic assurance processes robustly.
The higher education sector has come a huge way in the last couple of years to rebuild confidence in the value of degrees.
The sector should keep the conversation going about the classification system. No system is ever perfect, and we should be open to a healthy debate about where improvements can be made.
There’s a wealth of activity taking place across institutions. Let’s collectively learn from this, while being attentive to the risks grade inflation poses. UUK, GuildHE and our members have brought about a step change on this issue, and we will continue to lead further sector action where necessary.