Why grade inflation matters

The credibility and value of the qualifications awarded by higher education providers matters greatly to students, their families, employers and other stakeholders. And it matters too for the international reputation of the English higher education sector.

Why grade inflation matters

This is why one of the OfS’s regulatory objectives is to ensure qualifications hold value over time. We impose conditions of registration on every provider to ensure this is the case and we monitor data that shows the patterns of qualifications that are awarded across the sector and by each provider.

We also publish our analysis of this data because transparency is an important regulatory tool – it draws attention to an important issue and prompts questions about the practice across the sector. So today sees the publication of the OfS’s latest report – our third – on unexplained attainment. The analysis takes the underlying data submitted by universities and colleges, takes account of a range of student characteristics, and determines how much of any increase in attainment is left unexplained by those factors.

We noted in January 2020 that the proportion of first-class degrees awarded at sector level had remained the same between 2018 and 2019, following a series of increases year-on-year from 2011. We think this suggests that universities and colleges are taking concerns about grade inflation seriously and we welcome the steps the sector continues to take, including through the work of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) and others on the Statement of Intent, external examiner training, and, most recently, degree algorithms. We also think this is part due to the publication of our analysis and engagement with individual providers in previous years.

Today’s report shows that, at sector level, there was a small increase (0.4%) in unexplained attainment year on year for first class degrees, the smallest year-on-year increase observed since 2010-11, although 14% of first class degree attainment still remains unexplained. For individual providers, we can see a more complex picture.  There are positive changes at some universities which had previously had some of the biggest increases in unexplained firsts, and we welcome that. However, there is increased evidence of a rise in unexplained attainment since 2010-11 for 61% of providers when the award of firsts and 2.1s are considered together, and 73% when firsts are considered on their own.

We are continuing to improve our understanding of the reasons for these unexplained increases although, as we noted back in 2019, we can still see that closing attainment gaps for students from different backgrounds does not account for these increases.

Last year we engaged with individual providers to understand the factors that might be contributing to the patterns we could see in the analysis. This year, we’re going further. We launched a consultation this week to strengthen our ability to regulate quality and standards. It includes proposals to extend the requirements we put in place so that we can regulate in relation to the classifications awarded to undergraduate students (see note 1). This would provide us with the ability to intervene where the evidence suggested that the standards set and recognised by the sector for its own awards are not being met by an individual university or college in practice.

This point is vital in thinking about where primary responsibility for tackling grade inflation lies: autonomous degree awarding bodies are responsible for setting and maintaining their own standards. We welcome the actions the sector continues to take to provide public confidence that standards are maintained and we look forward to seeing the progress it makes in arresting the increase in classifications when we publish our analysis next year. We remain willing to intervene on this, and other quality and standards matters, as necessary to protect the interests of students.

In the meantime we welcome responses to our consultation proposals.


  1. We are proposing that we include in the definition of ‘sector-recognised standards’ in the regulatory framework the degree classification descriptors for Level 6 (bachelors’ degree with honours) qualifications adopted by the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment in June 2019.

Grade inflation

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Published 19 November 2020

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