Universities agree principles to tackle grade inflation

New guidance on degree algorithms aims to prevent grade inflation and protect the value of qualifications

The UK higher education sector has agreed new principles to tackle grade inflation.

A report published today (21 July) by Universities UK (UUK) and GuildHE on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment [UKSCQA] outlines six new guiding principles for degree algorithm design.

Degree algorithms are used to calculate a student’s final degree classification – a first, upper-second, lower-second, third classification, or a pass. However, different providers use different degree algorithms.

The new principles are designed “to provide assurance that this does not undermine the sector’s commitment to protecting the value of qualifications at the point of award and over time.”

Degree algorithms: the six new principles

  1. An algorithm must provide an appropriate and reliable summary of a student’s performance against the learning outcomes, reflecting the design, delivery and structure of a degree programme
  2. An algorithm must fairly reflect a student’s performance without unduly over-emphasising particular aspects, with consideration at the design stage of how each element within a method of classification interacts with other elements
  3. An algorithm must protect academic standards by adhering to current conventions and national reference points used to define classification bands and boundaries
  4. An algorithm must normally be reviewed at least every five years – or alongside national cyclical review timetables – to ensure algorithms remain relevant and appropriate, with input from across the provider, including students, academic and non-academic staff, and accrediting bodies
  5. An algorithm must be designed and reviewed in a way that is mindful of the impact of different calculation approaches to classification for different groups of students
  6. An algorithm must be communicated and explained clearly to students, both in how it works and why

These principles will be added to the UKSCQA statement of intent, of May 2019, which outlines specific commitments universities have made to ensure transparency, fairness and reliability in the way they award degrees.

It is more important than ever that the public has full confidence in the value of a UK university degree and that degree classifications are meaningful for employers and students – Professor Andrew Wathey, UKSCQA

“These principles demonstrate consistency and transparency in the way that final degree classifications are awarded in UK universities,” said Professor Andrew Wathey, vice-chancellor of the University of Northumbria at Newcastle and UKSCQA chair.

“Universities are committed to taking visible action to address the issue of grade inflation. It is more important than ever that the public has full confidence in the value of a UK university degree and that degree classifications are meaningful for employers and students.”

Professor Debra Humphris, vice-chancellor of the University of Brighton and chair of UUK’s Student Policy Network, added: “The UK’s universities are world-leading and our students are highly motivated and eager to learn. In these challenging times they have proven that they are dedicated and adaptable.

“It is vital that we protect the value of UK degrees and these principles are another important step in ensuring that students can continue to take pride in the qualifications they work so hard to achieve.”

Dr David Llewellyn, chair of GuildHE and vice-chancellor of Harper Adams University said: “UK higher education has a reputation for excellence. Universities and colleges are committed to maintaining the value of UK degrees and robustly protecting academic standards.

“Our joint report, setting out principles for degree algorithms, is an important addition to the work that the sector has been doing on protecting academic standards, including degree outcomes statements, degree classification descriptors and work to strengthen the external examiner system.”

The report also includes examples of recommended good practice in the following areas:

  • Discounting marks – there should not be the option of discounting core or final year modules. Clear instructions on discounting must be provided to students.
  • Border-line classifications – there should be a maximum zone of consideration of two percentage points from the grade boundary. Rounding, if used, should occur only once, and at the final stage.
  • Only one algorithm should be used to determine degree classifications and this should be clearly stated to students at the beginning of their studies.
  • Weighting given to different years within degrees – there should be minimum divergence from the four outlined rationales: exit velocity (grade reflects the student’s achievement at the end of their studies); emphasis on exit velocity (grade reflects additional importance of the final year but also uses credits from the penultimate level); equal weighting (grade reflects consistency in performance across the final and penultimate level of study); and level 4/8 inclusion (grade includes marks from level 4/8)

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