Universities announce external examiner review to ‘uphold’ degree value

In the wake of the pandemic, the number of first-class undergraduate degrees increased to a record high – at the same time, universities vowed to “protect the value” of degrees

Universities UK and GuildHE – together representing 178 higher education providers in the UK – have vowed to improve external examining practices to “uphold the value of university qualifications”.

Universities UK, the collective voice of 140 universities, and GuildHE, representatives of a range of specialist institutes, warn that – despite some progress on grade inflation since 2019, when the groups published a statement of intent – there remain inconsistencies that “could undermine confidence in degree classification”.

The two sectoral bodies will now draw up national frameworks of “recognised standards”, and add new principles to the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) statement of intent, updating grade principles first published in July 2020.

Prof Andrew Wathey, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University and chair of the UKSCQA, said the principles “will help maintain trust in our world-leading universities” and “uphold the value of university qualifications”.

UUK and GuildHE plan to rewrite the eligibility criteria and required qualifications for external examiners to include “industry and PSRB expertise”. They will establish new training and continued professional development rules for external examiners – and standardise the ways universities respond to concerns raised by examiners.

The statement published today (Thursday 5 August) is the latest in a string of assurances from UUK and GuildHE, who have vowed to “address concerns” about grade inflation and ‘dumbed-down’ degrees. Between 2006/07 and 2018/19, the percentage of first-class and upper-second-class honour degrees awarded increased from 61% to 76%.

While there will be scope to adapt to local contexts, including subject-specific requirements, greater consistency in the use of external examiners will make it easier to compare awards
– Prof Debra Humphris, University of Brighton

Education secretary Gavin Williamson warned universities to tackle the trend in September 2019, shortly after his appointment to the role. “In 1997, when I graduated, 50% of students gained a first or 2.1. Last year, 80% of students did so. If we don’t tackle them, your hard-won reputation for excellence will be undermined,” he warned vice-chancellors.

Prof Debra Humphris, the vice-chancellor of the University of Brighton, said today: “Universities recognise and continue to strengthen external examining processes to ensure degree-awarding processes are fair, transparent and reliable. This work will help them take appropriate action as part of continued efforts to protect the value of degree qualifications.

“While there will be scope to adapt to local contexts, including subject-specific requirements, greater consistency in the use of external examiners will make it easier to compare awards.”

Last year, following the Covid-19 lockdown, the proportion of top undergraduate degrees increased further still – from 76% to 82%. The causes of this grade inflation were “multi-faceted“, UUK declared in April 2021, acknowledging the rise “raises inevitable questions” about the impact of the pandemic on degrees. The sector body suggested that improvements in teaching and new forms of assessment were partly behind the increase.

Chris Hale, director of policy for UUK, said: “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.”

Hale’s comments came after the Office for Students (OfS) declared that no-detriment policies during the pandemic led to grade inflation and a record number of first-class honours degrees. In January 2021, OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge warned that “temporary changes in response to the pandemic should not bake in further grade inflation”, suggesting the regulator of universities in England expects to see the number of top degrees fall in future years.

Read more: Low-value degrees: UUK announces charter to ‘address concerns’

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