No-detriment policies led to grade inflation – OfS

“Temporary changes in response to the pandemic should not bake in further grade inflation,” the HE regulator in England said

No-detriment policies last year contributed to grade inflation and a record number of first-class honours degrees, according to the Office for Students (OfS).

The statement came as the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) released new figures that relate to student enrolment, progression and achievement during the 2019/20 academic year – the period was marked by lengthy disruption during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

To alleviate fears the coronavirus disruption would affect students’ degrees, many universities introduced no-detriment policies. In many cases, providers calculated final-year students’ degree classifications using the higher outcome of either the best 50% of credits achieved across the course or by excluding final year marks.

According to Hesa, 800,335 HE qualifications were awarded in the UK last year, of which over half (53%) were first degrees – in most cases BA or BSC qualifications. More than a third of these first degrees (35%) were first-class honours – compared to 28% in 2018/19. The percentage of first-class honours degrees is the same for England as the rest of the UK.

Latest figures should not “bake in” grade inflation

The Office for Students, which only has powers over HE providers in England, said no-detriment policies – which have had much lower levels of uptake this academic year – were behind “the significant increase” of first-class honours degrees in nation.

OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge added: “Before the pandemic, OfS analysis found evidence that unexplained grade inflation at our universities had begun to slow. However, there is more to be done to ensure that students, graduates and employers can maintain their confidence in the value of a degree and temporary changes in response to the pandemic should not bake in further grade inflation.

“This will require careful work which balances the importance of standards being maintained with recognition of – and response to – the exceptional pressures that students remain under this year.”

The University of Greenwich announced in an email to students the introduction of a no-detriment policy. The policy is different from the one used in 2019/20 – and will align 2020 degrees against the average achieved in previous years. If the mean average of marks is below that of previous cohorts, the university will increase its marks accordingly. The University of Bath has said examiners will “consider performance against previous years’ averages…and may adjust marks if there are anomalies”.

The University of Gloucestershire has similarly introduced a no-detriment policy, while Brighton University students’ union said in a statement yesterday it was “optimistic that a safety net will be implemented” before the summer exam season. After announcing that UCL would not introduce a no-detriment policy – after deciding last summer that “blanket changes to classifications were not necessary” – vice-provost Prof Anthony Smith said the university would review this decision after a student campaign.

Rise in non-EU international students

The Hesa statistics showed that the total number of HE students stood at 2,532,385 in 2019/20, an increase of 3% from 2018/19. First-year masters taught course enrolments increased by 15% – most were non-EU students. The total number of students from India, for example, increased from 27,505 in 2018/19 to 55,465 in 2019/20. The number of Chinese students has increased from 90,735 in 2015/16 to 141,780 in 2019/20.

The number of first-year students aged 25–29 and 30 years and over increased by more than 24,000 last year – but their share of first-year enrolments stalled, and proportion over 30 fell.

The percentage of first-year white students has decreased from 76% in 2016/17 to 74% in 2018/19 – Asian students now make up 12% of first-year undergraduate enrolments, up from 10% four years ago, while black students continue to account for 8% of first-year undergraduate enrolments.

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