It's a well-worn complaint that universities are dishing out firsts as never before. Today, a report by the Office for Students (OfS) confirms the true extent of 'grade inflation' at our universities: 124 of the 148 higher-education providers they assessed in England show ‘a statistically significant unexplained increase’ in the proportion of firsts and 2.1s awarded, compared with figures in 2010-11. Between 2011 and 2017, the average percentage of firsts and 2.1 degrees rose from 67 per cent to 78 per cent.
The figures uniformly document the same upwards trend. Among the most striking cases of ‘inflation’ were the universities of Bradford (a rise from 48 per cent to 76 per cent), Huddersfield (58 per cent to 81 per cent), and East Anglia (73 per cent to 92 per cent). But top of the list for 2016-17 is Oxford (94.6 per cent); Cambridge, Bristol, Durham, Imperial and UCL also awarded firsts and 2.1s to over 90 per cent of graduating students. The University of Surrey heads the field in awarding firsts, with 51 per cent in 2017 (but 23 per cent in 2011). The report also reveals that those entering with lower A Levels have seen the sharpest increase in performance: undergraduates with CCD (or equivalent) were nearly three times more likely to attain a first in 2017 than in 2011.
So what is going on? Are students getting cleverer? Or is teaching improving? Or has the university sector changed its mind about what first-class performances look like? Or are changing forms of examination and assessment making success easier? There is no compelling evidence to support the first of these explanations but there are elements of truth to the others. The OfS report concedes that ‘improvements in teaching’ are ‘not accounted for in the analysis’. Although such intangibles are effectively impossible to measure, this omission is unfortunate, as greater attention on teaching methods is doubtless playing some positive role across English universities.
But there’s more going on. For the OfS does routinely attempt to measure the unmeasurable with its ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ assessment (TEF). This draws upon data from the National Student Survey, which measures student satisfaction about their degree experience. While this metric is undoubtedly problematic, it may well affect students’ overall attainment: among the questions analysed by TEF is the degree to which ‘the criteria used in marking have been clear in advance’. Universities are therefore incentivised to make as clear as possible what should be done to perform at the highest level, and to show such advice is being heeded. While the clarification and circulation of marking criteria seem perfectly desirable, higher levels of high-level attainment are an inevitable outcome.
There are, of course, several other incentives for universities to award a good number of first-class degrees: a high proportion will advertise the course as a success, as will the successful students. What’s more, prospective applicants may well be drawn to those courses that seem more likely to result in first-class degrees. And with governmental funding on the wane, it is undergraduate tuition fees that keep the financial ship afloat – especially at universities with comparatively little economic input and scholarly output for research.
This debate about grade inflation also raises the broader debate of what university degrees actually mean: are they assessments against objective intellectual benchmarks, beyond the particulars of individual institutions or subjects? Or are they a classification of a given cohort of students in relation to one another? In reality, both of these factors are involved in classification, and in all but a handful of subjects they are inextricably linked. To take an extreme, imagine a course that took a purist line and assessed its students only against an objectively, globally-acknowledged first-class standard. If a cohort of 100 students one year produced no such performance, the principled result would be to award no firsts. But then the questions would come thick and fast: why are no students reaching the top grade, not even the best? Was the teaching somehow botched? Was the course under-resourced? Were the examinations misconducted? Were the marking criteria unreasonably ambitious? Were they made sufficiently clear to the cohort? These questions would come primarily not from the (notionally second-class) graduates but from panicking university administrators.
The OfS, too, would worry. With an eye on the nation’s purse, it expects publicly-funded universities to perform a service for employers: they should not just show that candidates have reached an appropriately high level of attainment, but also distinguish their performances from one another by different classifications. Employers seem to agree: for many years they have been asking prospective employees for not just detailed marks from throughout their degree, but also their ranked position in the cohort. Given that degree classification is becoming binary – a first, or not-first (i.e. 2.1) – their curiosity is perfectly understandable.
As an increasingly hands-on regulator of the university sector, the OfS is talking tough:
‘It is essential that all providers take steps to curb inappropriate increases in the awarding of first class and upper second class degrees... Where providers do not take sufficient action to address this issue, we may use the full range of our regulatory powers to intervene.’
Among such powers are fines and removal from the register of approved higher education institutes. Since the universities minister Sam Gyimah quit over Brexit last month, it’s too early to know what his replacement, Chris Skidmore – who took a first in History at Christ Church, Oxford – has to say.
What, then, to do? Since no university is likely to reverse this trend unilaterally, academics are quietly canvassing solutions. One may be to follow the practice of GCSEs and A-Levels and reaccommodate: to introduce a new, top-level degree classification. Many universities have customarily acknowledged the most distinguished performances with a ‘starred first’ or similar. If formalised across the sector, this ‘distinguished first’ would presumably need collective restriction, so that its value be readily intelligible to the wider world. Perhaps universities could commit to awarding these to no more (and often less) than 10 per cent of the cohort? Without such an admittedly crude cap on excellence, grade inflation – whatever academic truths it may reflect – will continue to blunt the most powerful tool that universities possess: the power to classify students by self-determined degrees.
Dr David Butterfield is director of studies for Classics at Queens' College