The Office for Students (OfS) has raised concerns that a “decade of unexplained grade inflation” is a “real credibility issue” for universities in England.
The regulator warned universities should brace themselves for a response, as the interim chief executive threatened to utilise new conditions of registration as part of a soon-to-be-released strategy to investigate the issue.
The report released today by the OfS argues that nearly six in 10 (59.1%) of first-class degrees awarded in 2020-21 are “unexplained”.
Using modelling based on student achievement and demographics in 2010-11, the OfS says that “had awarding behaviours been the same as 2010-11”, the percentage of firsts awarded in 2020-21 should have been around 15.5% of degrees awarded – not 37.9%.
The regulator builds a statistical breakdown of student cohorts based on their ages, disability status, ethnicity, sex, previous academic performance, and socio-economic background. It used this model to “estimate expected patterns in degree classification attainment between 2010-11 to 2020-21”.
The OfS accepts that its approach does not account for improvements in teaching quality or more diligent students that “could also be driving the observed changes in degree attainment”, which have seen the number of firsts grow by 22.4 percentage points in 10 years.
The regulator warned that even if it removed attainment gaps between students based on sex, ethnicity, disability status and socio-economic background from its analysis, the “unexplained” increase in firsts would still measure 17.4 percentage points.
In 2020-21, 61% of students with three As and above at A-level received a first-class degree, compared to 33.5 per cent in 2010-11. The number of students that achieved DDD and under at A-level and graduated with a first increased from 5.3% to 28.5%.
By the end of the decade analysed, all universities and colleges included in the analysis “saw significant increases in unexplained first-class degrees”, the OfS said.
Susan Lapworth, interim chief executive at the OfS, warned that “unmerited grade inflation is bad for students, graduates and employers, and damages the reputation of English higher education”.
“We know that universities and colleges used ‘no detriment’ policies to respond to the exceptional set of circumstances caused by the pandemic,” said Lapworth. “But grade inflation has been a real credibility issue for the sector for some time and the pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to allow a decade of unexplained grade inflation to be baked into the system.”
She said, “the sustained increase in unexplained firsts awarded continues to pose regulatory concerns for the OfS”, adding it was important for students, employers and graduates to have “confidence” in degrees.
“We now have new conditions of registration in force and we will be publishing more details about our plans to investigate these issues shortly,” Lapworth concluded.
Prof Steve West CBE, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of UWE Bristol, said: “The Office for Students has rightly designed a regulatory system based on the principle that the grades a student enters university with should not limit expectations of what they can achieve, and this logic must also apply to degree classification.
“Universities have been asked to ensure students from disadvantaged backgrounds have the support they need to succeed at university. We believe the OfS must be careful not to assume that students with lower entry grades, typically from more disadvantaged backgrounds, cannot achieve first class degrees.”