Universities in England pledge to tackle grade inflation within 12 months

The commitment means that universities anticipate reducing the number of first-class degrees awarded by eight percentage points by summer 2023

Universities in England will tackle grade inflation by slashing the numbers of undergraduates receiving first and 2.1 degrees, returning the proportion of those graduating with top honours to levels seen before the pandemic.

Universities UK (UUK) and GuildHE, representing the largest universities and higher education providers, announced the decision to reduce degree outcomes in line with pre-pandemic figures on 5 July. 

By 2023, the proportion of students receiving first-class degrees will fall by 25%. 

Between 2018/19 and 2019/20, the first year of the pandemic, the proportion of undergraduates receiving firsts increased from 28% to 35%. The overall distribution of 2:1s awarded dropped slightly, from 48% to 47%, meaning 82% of undergraduates left university with top-level degrees. The following year, degree figures altered marginally, with 36% of undergraduates receiving firsts and 46% 2:1s. 

The commitment means universities will decrease the collective number of firsts by eight percentage points in 12 months. However, as recently as January, a statement from UUK suggested that nearly half of its 140 members may struggle to tackle unexplained degree grade inflation in time for summer 2022. 

The minister for higher and further education, Michelle Donelan, said she was “delighted” at the news. 

“Just as the government is restoring pre-pandemic grading at GCSE and A-Level by 2023, today’s statement will ensure that universities are also eliminating the grade inflation that occurred over the pandemic, and on the same timetable,” continued Donelan. “Together, we are taking action to restore high standards across our education system.

“Hardworking students deserve to know that earning a first or upper second really counts and that it carries weight with employers – who in turn should be able to trust in the high value and rigorous assessment of university courses.”

This is vital to ensure that grades remain meaningful to the public, employers and students themselves, for the long term
– Steve West, Universities UK

During the pandemic, universities introduced “no-detriment” policies for students’ grades, ensuring that good grades achieved before March 2020 could not be eclipsed by bad grades achieved during the coronavirus pandemic. The Office for Students, the HE regulator in England, says this approach contributed to grade inflation, later claiming that six in 10 (59.1%) of first-class degrees awarded in 2020-21 are “unexplained“.

The regulator has raised concerns that a “decade of unexplained grade inflation” is a “real credibility issue” for universities in England.

UUK has previously attributed pandemic grade inflation to improvements to teaching, learning, assessments, and no-detriment policies. In January, the organisation argued: “It would be wrong to artificially cap results. But where providers can’t easily explain the increases, they should look at their data and policies to understand and then – if necessary – reduce the trend.”

The portion of undergraduates awarded first-class and 2:1 degrees steadily increased over the past decade, doubling between 2011 and 2019, to the frustration of some government ministers. In 2017, then universities minister Jo Johnson called on the sector to “define and agree… standards for all classifications of degrees”.

In May 2019, UUK published a statement of intent which saw universities across the UK agree on new commitments to address grade inflation. By summer 2019, statistics showed the number of top degrees appeared to be levelling off. 

In July 2020, UUK released six new guiding principles for degree algorithm design and acclaimed the progress made by the sector in December of that year

Professor Steve West, president of UUK and vice-chancellor of UWE Bristol, said: “The UK’s universities have a global reputation for excellence, and we must keep confidence in the value of our degrees high. 

“The pandemic brought uniquely challenging circumstances and students who have graduated over the last three years should feel proud of, and confident in, the qualifications they worked hard to achieve.

“As we emerge and look to the future, we have an opportunity to take meaningful action and strengthen our commitment to fair, transparent and reliable degree classification.

“This is vital to ensure that grades remain meaningful to the public, employers and students themselves, for the long term.”

Anthony McClaran, chair of GuildHE and vice-chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, said: “Higher education institutions are strongly committed to maintaining robust academic standards. 

“During the pandemic, we have rightly recognised the disruption that students have faced and supported students’ achievement to be recognised as flexibly as possible. As we emerge from the pandemic it is time to redouble our focus on protecting academic standards and take strong action to ensure we maintain the wider confidence and trust in the system.”

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