Degrees of inflation? Ensuring the credibility and reliability of higher education qualifications

The Office for Students (OfS) is taking action to tackle grade inflation. Nick Holland, Head of Provider Standards at the OfS, explains.


Hugh Fletcher

Between 1988 and 2012 I coordinated a university first year module. During a few years, 1988-1996, the number of students doubled and the average mark fell from 54% to below 30%. To remain viable we had to raise the marks of students getting 25 up to 35 so that their coursework would give them an average pass of 40%. We did this by removing difficult (especially numerical) components, teaching more to the questions than the subject, and giving 20% of the marks for rote learning; filling in missing words in "key" sentences which were given to the students to accompany each lecture, and identified as such. There was a tendency to simplify questions and expectations of answers too. This got the weak students through with a moderately good A-level knowledge, but the first class students who would have got 75 now got marks in the 80 or 90s. We were commended for our achievement. The data is published:- Journal of Biological Education Volume 34, 1999 pages 32-35 Similar modifications were made for final exams. When I was an UG, we had two papers of "problem questions". These were unseen original research data which we were expected to make sensible comments about, using the overall knowledge/understanding gained on the course. By 2000, most universities had dropped these because most students could not attempt them. Removing these papers put average marks up. The students had come through an education system where they were taught what to put in answers to standard questions. e.g. reproduce the notes for the appropriate lecture. The technique for a 3-question paper became to prepare and learn two formal answers, put them down for the most appropriate questions, and hope to muddle through a third answer to get a 2.1 average. When I started marking honours courses in 1982, we marked to degree class, essentially in 10-mark bands. Below 40 was inadequate, 40-50=3rd, 50-60 = lower 2nd, 60-70= upper second, and 70+ = 1st. The maximum almost never exceeded 75. A textbook might have got 80. From 2000 -2010, there was a noticable amelioration in the attitudes of external examiners, and calls from some to use the whole 100-point marking scale. This Changed the first class band into a 30-point range. Previously, and average of a brilliant and a fail mark was (39+76)/2 = 57.5, high lower second, showing limited areas of good knowledge. With a 76 suddenly scaled up to 95, that average became 67, top 2.1, eligible for elevation to first by various "predominance" rules. One bullseye pre-learned answer could almost guarantee a 2.1 or 1st for that paper. There was also a tendency for a middle-of-the-road mark to go from a central position of 58 or 60#, 2.2-2.1 border, towards 70, borderline first, halfway between pass (40) and top (100). (# 59s were banned). So expanding the top band automatically raised the markers' conception of appropriate marks. Doing all calculations numerically as rules to be obeyed, the examiners meeting became powerless and irrelevant. There was no way to assess the appropriateness of any student's degree class. Standards were determined by central university scales and requirements. Lecturers, as tutors and markers, became detached from involvement with final degree classification. Internal audit and censure soon persuaded anyone maintaining standards that they should join the race to the top. Attendance at assessment events became patchy and cursory. By 2010, graduates from the easier 1999 standards were 30+ years old and actively lecturing. As the staff who remembered the 1980s (let alone the 60s and 70s) retired, the way was open for rounds of reinforcement of the decline as younger staff, familiar with lowered standards, continued the process and gained from more lenient marking by better student assessment and congratulations from senior staff for improving their pass rate. Hugh Fletcher, one time departmental director of education.

7 Oct 2022 - 2:32PM


Universities are commercial entities and there is a financial incentive for them to inflate grades to increase their customer appeal. I would be very interested in seeing a further breakdown of this data by subject and university. For instance, is there a statistically signification difference in grade inflation between Russell Group universities (that arguably don't have as much an incentive to inflate) and others? Also, is there a significant difference between those subjects which are historically oversubscribed and those than are not?

12 May 2022 - 11:33AM

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Published 12 May 2022

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