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

In documents published today, UUK argues that growth in first-class and upper second-class degrees last year may have been driven by “dramatic changes to teaching, learning and assessment”

The causes of grade inflation last year were multi-faceted, Universities UK has said, adding that recent graduates should “have confidence that their qualification holds value”.

The organisation representing 140 universities across the British Isles today released a policy briefing that argues the rise in first-class and upper second-class degrees was not solely the result of no-detriment and safety net policies introduced by universities amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

It acknowledged that the grade inflation “raises inevitable questions” about the impact of the pandemic on degrees.

Figures compiled by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) show a six-percentage-point rise in the proportion of first-class and upper second-class degrees awarded last year, increasing from 76% in 2018–19 to 82%. The proportion of firsts rose more than any, to 35% of undergraduates.

Unlike schools and colleges, “universities had less of their academic year left to complete when lockdown began,” the report says, adding: “Therefore, the picture is likely to be much more complex in higher education with the potential for positive lessons to be learnt.”

Chris Hale, director of policy for UUK, wrote in an op-ed for the Higher Education Policy Institute: “It is important that the sector interrogates and understands the 6% increase in upper awards observed last year.

“At first glance, this increase may seem an inevitable and direct consequence of ‘no detriment’ and safety net policies, but there are a range of factors that might have impacted on degree classification during this period. Most notably the dramatic changes to teaching, learning and assessment.”

No-detriment policies are unlikely to have caused significant grade inflation because degree classifications “draw upon existing achievement that students have demonstrated through assessment”, the report says. At the time universities closed, students will likely have completed a significant proportion of coursework and exams, it adds.

Universities put in place safeguards – like stipulating that students pass particular modules to progress – that helped ensure degree standards consistent with previous years, the report continues.

UUK concedes that some safety net measures – like deadline extensions and self-certified sick notes – may have increased the number of students able to complete work on deadline.

We also want to highlight that – despite the disruption that the sector faced – the focus on flexibility and accessibility over the last year may also have contributed to the narrowing of attainment gaps between different groups of students
– Chris Hale, Universities UK

But the report points to other factors that may have led to students receiving higher marks. Suggestions include more time to study, greater access to flexible online content, better online learning, faster online-enabled marking and feedback, staff availability, and different examination styles, like open-book assessments.

These benefits were not felt uniformly by all students, the report notes, but it adds that figures suggest that several attainment gaps narrowed.

The female-to-male gap in first-class and upper second-class degrees reduced from four percentage points in 2018–19 to 2.7 percentage points in 2019–20. The gap also narrowed between students with a disability and those without– from 2.8 to 1.4 percentage points – and between white and black students – from 23.5 to 20.1 percentage points. In England, the gap between the least deprived students and the most deprived reduced from 17.7 percentage points in 2018–19 to 15.2.

“Through our new report, we also want to highlight that – despite the disruption that the sector faced – the focus on flexibility and accessibility over the last year may also have contributed to the narrowing of attainment gaps between different groups of students,” Hale wrote. “For this to be the case despite the issues which many students faced, and universities worked hard to overcome, is a sign of progress.”


Read more: Universities pose greater Covid risk than colleges or schools, says Donelan

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