UUK vows to tackle record-breaking grade inflation

A survey by Universities UK of its members suggests a half are not yet in a strong position to tackle inflationary increases in degree results

Universities UK has admitted that nearly half of its 140 members may struggle to tackle unexplained degree grade inflation this year as it sets out how the sector is trying to address fears of ballooning numbers of top-class degrees.

The briefing from UUK follows concerns from ministers in England about a rise in the number of first-class and upper second-class (2:1) degrees awarded to undergraduates during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The survey revealed that 47% of universities think they “are in a stronger place to protect degree standards” than in January 2019 – but the same proportion regards their position as equally unprepared. UUK says the survey suggests “there is more to do to support this work and understand and tackle unexplained grade inflation”.

In a briefing entitled ‘How are universities protecting degree standards?’, UUK reveals that an internal poll of 44 members suggests 47% of universities are in the same position as they were two years ago, the year that saw a record number of top-class degrees.

UUK said the pandemic “disrupted the progress universities were making”. The organisation added that changes to teaching, learning, assessments, and the introduction of no-detriment safety nets, contributed to the “leap” in top degrees.

The proportion of students achieving one of the two highest degree classifications has risen from 63% in 2006/27 to 82% in 2019/20. Although the number receiving a first or 2:1 remained the same between 2016-17 and 2018-19, the number rose by six percentage points in 2019-20. The proportion of firsts rose from 28% to 35% of degrees.

This is the second briefing from UUK on the topic: the first, published April 2021, argued that record grade inflation had “complex causes”. The briefing followed a statement from the chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), Nicola Dandridge, in January 2021 that blamed the decision to implement “no-detriment” grade policies for the “significant increase” in upper degrees.

The UUK briefing published this January maintains the argument that the causes of recent grade inflation are multi-faceted, including “genuine student improvements and better teaching methods and assessment”. Against this backdrop of improving student performance, UUK added: “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.”

Given this somewhat mixed picture, UUK says its members are working in concert to avoid any unexplained inflation.

Already universities in England and Wales are reviewing their degree algorithms, acting to “strengthen the external examining system” and sharing degree classification descriptors to help shore up national standards.

The review of degree algorithms includes ensuring that good final year marks cannot eclipse poor assessment performances in earlier years. Universities are expanding the role of external examiners, UUK says – including inviting them to review degree outcome statements and institutional analysis of degree grade inflation.

Read more: Grade inflation last year had ‘complex’ causes, says Universities UK

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