Attainment versus grade inflation: which students are caught in the middle?

None of us should be satisfied until each student that comes through our doors is engaged, and leaves us with a high-quality degree, says Sal Jarvis, pro-vice-chancellor education and student experience at the University of Hertfordshire, who will be speaking at the Higher Education Partnership Network event

Widening Participation (WP) discussions often focus narrowly on access to higher education: maybe as narrowly as how many WP students get into Oxbridge. But the vast majority of students will take their degree somewhere else entirely, and at least as important as getting in to university is success while you are there. I look forward to the day that every single student who joins the University of Hertfordshire leaves with a degree, a career, and having lived to their full potential while with us. Universities work hard to close the attainment gap between BAME and white British students, and between students from more and less privileged backgrounds – but it remains stubbornly wide.

The catch-22

The Office for Students (OfS) is quite right to expect that all students, from whatever background, should be supported to access, succeed in, and progress from university successfully. The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) makes use of split metrics, which identify the perceptions, continuation rates and employment of different groups of students, to shine a light on inequalities. But the fact that there is also a TEF metric that seeks to measure and punish grade inflation gives rise to a sharp dilemma: if universities drive forward enhancements that enable more BAME students, and more working-class students to achieve the good degree they deserve, then the proportion of good degrees will rise, and universities will be penalised for grade inflation. If there is no increase in the proportion of good degrees, then the gaps will remain, and universities will be penalised for the inequalities.

The OfS is quite right to expect that all students should be supported to access, succeed in, and progress from university successfully

This dilemma is sharpest for institutions like mine, which recruit a high percentage of non-traditional students. And if the sector is not careful then, as we navigate this minefield, somewhere, lost in the middle, is the individual student who is entitled to an excellent education that enables them to achieve their best. The TEF is now in its fourth year and currently subject to an independent review led by Dame Shirley Pearce: to what extent will its recommendations successfully navigate the choppy waters between upholding high quality and eliminating these unjustifiable inequalities? Will TEF ever be able to distinguish grade improvement from grade inflation? These are some of the questions I will consider at the Higher Education Partnership Network in April.

Hertfordshire at the vanguard of development

In the face of such a complex issue, at the University of Hertfordshire we have invested time and money to develop an inclusive culture which enables all our students to succeed. We have a vibrant and diverse student body. Over half of our students are from a BAME background; around 40% of our students will be the first in their family to attend university; a similar percentage are not traditional ‘live away from home’ students, but commuters, sometimes travelling quite long distances to the university or managing caring responsibilities alongside study. Very many of our students – probably most- work in term time to enable them to meet their expenses. We are proud that our TEF Gold award explicitly recognised our work to enable outstanding outcomes for all our students, and we continue to strive to remove the institutional barriers that may impede their success.

We are part of an OfS-funded consortium, which is led by Kingston University and includes the Universities of Greenwich, Wolverhampton, De Montfort and UCL as well as ourselves. Its work makes use of Kingston’s value-added metric to explore differences in degree attainment between different groups of students and to stimulate inclusive curricular changes at programme level. This work can result in some challenging and honest conversations if staff start from a deficit model of students, feeling that the need is to ‘fix’ the students, rather than to ensure that our courses, campuses, structures and processes are inclusive and enabling for all.

We believe that institutional change is best developed in partnership, so our staff teams work closely with our students, drawing on their experience and expertise. For example, we employ student BAME advocates – one for each of our academic schools. The activities they lead are bespoke for each school but include holding focus groups; discussing inclusive practices; challenging assumptions and critiquing the curriculum. Just now our BAME advocates are organising a BAME students’ careers fair. Their work is highly valued across the university. Change is needed, but it should be developed with, and by, students as well as for them.

Whose children are we thinking of?

Make no mistake, while we have made good progress towards our goal to eliminate the value-added gaps between different groups of students, at Hertfordshire we still have much to do. But these questions are not just questions for senior leaders in higher education institutions, nor only for course teams, but also for the government and the OfS. How can they ensure that TEF metrics can distinguish grade improvement from grade inflation? If funding for higher education is reduced following the recommendations of the Augar review, how can the government ensure that this doesn’t further widen the HE participation gap?

When policymakers settle these questions, which place some universities between a rock and a hard place, whose children will they be thinking of? Will changes to fees, funding and TEF only benefit the already advantaged students whose education has secured high grades and places at prestigious universities? Only those students who require no cultural or other adjustments to universities’ practices to achieve their full potential? Will policymakers be thinking of those students who may look at their lecturers and not see a single person who looks like them or has had their experiences?

None of us, whether policymakers, university leaders or lecturers, should be satisfied until each student who comes through universities’ doors is engaged, and leaves with a high-quality degree. At the University of Hertfordshire, we are certainly not perfect, but what has worked best for us is collaboration. Can collaboration now, between the sector and the government, secure improvements? Our students are watching, and we must not fail them.

Register here for the upcoming Higher Education Partnership Network event, taking place on 30th April – 1 May at the De Vere Horwood Estate in Milton Keynes. You can read the full agenda here