I missed this one in yesterday’s Sunday Times. It must have been a quiet week because journalists have had to resort to the default HE story:
The scale of university grade inflation has been exposed by figures revealing a 50% increase in the proportion gaining top degrees at some institutions in the past decade.
Those with the sharpest rises include Coventry, Chester and Gloucestershire universities. At Heriot-Watt, 67% of undergraduates finishing courses last year gained a first or upper second class (2.1) degree, up from 47% a decade earlier, a rise of nearly a half. At Imperial College London more than one third of students gained a first.
Critics fear universities have been softening their criteria for gaining top degrees, following the trend in A-levels and GCSEs, which have seen decades of grade inflation. They warn that employers are finding degree grades of less and less use in determining the best-qualified job applicants.
I won’t share too much of my frustration about cruddy journalism (e.g. who has “exposed” grade inflation? Given that the figures are all in the public domain!).
I must say that I am always a bit disappointed by the HE sector’s limp response to this criticism. It comes round the newspaper mill with staggering regularity, you’d have though we’d have a decent answer by now. But the best we can muster is some whimpering about the classification system being out of date and that HEAR will soon be along to rescue us all (it won’t BTW – more on that some other time maybe).
I have always thought grade inflation is down to three things:
- Massification: As student numbers have grown, students have become much much more competitive and focussed on getting the best grades. The days when a Douglas Hurd (Third Class) or a Desmond Tutu (Lower second class) were acceptable because you still had a good degree, are long gone. Students know that employers won’t look at you if you don’t have a 2:1 and they aim directly for that
- Transparency: 20 years ago, you would still find academics would base their mark on the view that “I know a good 2:1 when I read it”. Fine in the days when you only had a handful of scripts, but those days are now long gone. Clear grading criteria is now widespread, and so the ambiguity about what sits in each classification is gone. And of course, with clear criteria we did away with proportional distribution of degree classification, anyone who meets the grade, gets the grade.
- Feedback: Universities have, to their credit, put so much effort into improving feedback on assessment, this in turn will be helping students to improve their submissions.
All of those are good and beneficial changes. So lets hear it for grade inflation.