To end grade inflation, we must ditch the fantasy of absolute standards

Each university should define and proclaim its own mission, and then be measured against it, says Peter Main

October 25, 2022
Drone Point View of Sheikh Zayed Road No.1 Intersection to illustrate Absolute standards: a myth
Source: Getty

In 2011, about half (51 per cent) of graduating UK students achieved an upper second-class degree, while a sixth (16 per cent) were deemed first-class. Just seven years later, 79 per cent were awarded these top two grades, with 29 per cent being given a first.

Some might attribute this doubling of the proportion of students receiving the top grade to improvements in teaching, but the timescale is too rapid and personal experience suggests otherwise. Others might ask if it matters. Well, employers and postgraduate admissions tutors are being hindered by the lack of discrimination, and some jobs, such as teaching, offer salaries that depend on degree classification.

How can we understand this inflation? First, by accepting there is no absolute standard in degree awards. In practice, within a given degree programme, the standard is defined by historical precedence. Assessments are set and marked according to the capabilities of the students that the programme attracts. While many institutions produce grade descriptors defining what constitutes the requisite level of performance, these are unspecific and malleable in their application.

Second, the external pressures on universities encourage higher grades. Employers might hope for standards to be maintained, but they exert little direct influence. The most powerful factors are the processes that are carried out in the name of quality assurance. The National Student Survey (NSS) is important in its own right and as an input into the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Both the NSS and the TEF feed into university and subject rankings published in newspapers and online; some of these rankings use the percentage of “good degrees” as a measure of quality. Another factor that feeds into the TEF is the employability of graduates. The simplest way to improve the employment prospects of your graduates is to give them higher degree classifications.

What can be done to change the situation? The Office for Students is concerned about grade inflation and has opened an investigation at three institutions. Its line appears to be to require the institutions to justify their awards, but a better starting point would be to discard the notion of an absolute standard for degree classifications altogether and recognise that each programme, even within a single subject, has its own set of goals.

The quality assurance process must recognise and reward this diversity of provision and measure each programme against a public statement of what it is trying to achieve. One parameter would be the type of students it aspires to attract. For maximum diversity, a provider could choose which features are relevant. A prestigious Russell Group institution might aim for the best A-level candidates, whereas another university might target applicants from lower socio-economic groups, or mature students. Yet another might appeal to part-time candidates. Once one gets beyond the myth of a common standard, there is much more freedom.

Another parameter could be a statement of what students could expect. Some of the statement would be concerned with routine matters, such as library and computer provision, class sizes, contact hours, pastoral support and so on. But it could also be more imaginative. A programme that aimed to offer a second opportunity to students left behind by school education could state that a high attrition rate at the end of the first year is expected. Such an approach would fall foul of the current TEF, which also includes a measure of non-continuation rates, but would be seen by most people as laudably ambitious.

The final parameter would be graduate destinations. Once again, we could allow diversity to bloom. Many programmes would simply specify a percentage of graduates in graduate employment, but some might link to specific occupations, such as nursing, while others might place an emphasis on progression to PhD. One could even imagine a programme with no specific employment goals – though that would perhaps be less attractive to potential students. Universities would be free to specify short-, medium- and long-term graduate destinations.

All the stated goals should be measurable and/or demonstrable. That would be straightforward for admissions aspirations and student experience. Monitoring employment goals would require external data, but so does the current system.  

The spirit of these changes is to encourage honesty in descriptions of programmes and likely outcomes. Another useful shift would be to stop using the NSS as a direct measure of the quality of a programme and instead to use it as one of several inputs to inform institutions about student opinion, alongside things like internal questionnaires and student-staff liaison groups. Indeed, given that most quality assurance procedures are driven by central university committees, it would make far more sense for that aspect of external accreditation to operate solely at the institutional level. We do not need every department to report on how they approve new programmes, how they consult with students, how they train staff and so on.

By changing our mindset away from false conformity, we can recognise and celebrate the diversity of UK higher education provision while removing the implied equivalence of degree standards and the associated push towards grade inflation. Then, perhaps, we can move back to the idea that universities provide students with an education, not merely a qualification.      

Peter Main is professor emeritus in the department of physics at King’s College London. His ebook, Assessment in University Physics Education, is available from IOP Publishing.


Print headline: Absolute standards: a myth 

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