Grade inflation: universities show commitment to protecting degree standards

‘Significant progress’ made on grade inflation, say UUK and GuildHE, as they publish UKSCQA progress review

UK universities have proved their commitment to tackling grade inflation, according to a progress review published today.

The review from Universities UK and GuildHE, on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA), shows the steps universities have taken to protect the value of their qualifications over the past 18 months.

The update is the latest in an extensive degree standards project and follows the publication of a statement of intent in May 2019, which saw universities across the UK agree new commitments to address grade inflation, and the publication in July 2020 of six new guiding principles for degree algorithm design.

The initiative was originally triggered by concerns about grade inconsistency expressed in 2017 by then England universities minister Jo Johnson, who called on the sector to “define and agree… standards for all classifications of degrees”.

Universities had previously seen a steady increase in the proportion of first and 2:1 degrees awarded, and in 2017/2018, one in three students graduating an English university received a first-class degree. However, statistics for 2018-19 showed this had levelled off.

Grade inflation: progress so far

The report published today outlines the progress made across the UK higher education sector in protecting the transparency, reliability, and fairness of degree classifications:

  • 96% of providers surveyed intend to use the guidance issued in July 2020 to tighten up practices.
  • Since October 2020, 76% of institutions across the UK have used or are intending to use UK-wide degree classification descriptors
  • 87% of providers have or intend to make changes to their external examiner process
  • By December 2020, 61 providers within England and Wales had published degree outcomes statements, detailing their final degree classifications for graduates, and setting out how data has been scrutinised. All providers are expected to have published by the end of January 2021.

Combined, these activities demonstrate a sector commitment to protect the value of qualifications so that students can have pride in their awards – Professor Andrew Wathey, UKSCQA

The report also outlines the UKSCQA’s future priorities regarding degree classifications:

  • Understanding the immediate and longer-term impact of the changes caused by Covid-19 to education and their impact on the way providers award degrees
  • Engaging with league table compilers to assess the appropriate use and presentation of a ‘good degrees’ metric within student information.

 

“The sector has taken substantive action through statements of intent to protect the value of degree classifications,” commented Professor Andrew Wathey, chair of UKSCQA and vice-chancellor of the University of Northumbria at Newcastle.

“Individual institutions, their executive teams and governing bodies have engaged strongly, taking forward the sector’s own guidance on maintaining degree standards and implementing best practice.

“Combined, these activities demonstrate a sector commitment to protect the value of qualifications so that students can have pride in their awards and have confidence that they are a true reflection of achievement.

“This review also demonstrates a robust commitment to further sector work in this area.  It is an encouraging snapshot of progress, and we will continue to embed and set strong expectations for concerted progress.”

We will continue to ensure that lessons learnt are shared across the sector so that UK universities can guarantee transparency, fairness and reliability in the way they award degrees – Professor Debra Humphris

Professor Debra Humphris, vice-chancellor of the University of Brighton and chair of UUK’s Student Policy Network, said: “It is very encouraging to see the progress that has been made across the sector. Universities clearly remain committed to taking action to address the issue of grade inflation.

“Universities know that there is still more to be done, particularly since teaching, learning and methods of assessment have all needed to change in response to the pandemic. The immediate and longer-term impact of these changes must be understood.

“We will continue to ensure that lessons learnt are shared across the sector so that UK universities can guarantee transparency, fairness and reliability in the way they award degrees.”

For Dr David Llewellyn, vice-chancellor of Harper Adams University and chair of GuildHE UKSCQA’s work “is a good example of UK higher education’s long history of self-scrutiny and collaborative regulation. This review shows the substantial progress made in the last 18 months and the sector’s commitment to continue to keep degree standards under review.”

Higher Education Academy (HEA) Fellowships

The review also reported that a number of UK providers were setting “ambitious targets” to increase the number of teaching staff with Postgraduate Certificates in Higher Education, for example through national and internal fellowships, and had supported all new teaching staff to achieve fellowships in higher education teaching or equivalent.

The chart below shows the accumulative increase in the number of Higher Education Academy (HEA) fellows to 2019/20.

 

A further “stocktake” of the extent and impact of this work on degree classification and grade inflation will take place in a year’s time, UUK and GuildHE have promised, “with the potential for more in-depth reviews of specific strands of work at appropriate later stages”.


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