Getting to grips with grade inflation

Our director of competition and registration Susan Lapworth sets out the findings from our new report on degree classifications.

University graduates on their graduation day

As more people than ever gain degrees – and the proportion of firsts and 2:1s grows significantly – there is understandable public concern about the reliability of degree standards over time. Worries about grade inflation, which have been publicly acknowledged by sector leaders, and covered in the national media, threaten to devalue a university education in the eyes of employers and potential students. So it is essential we regain and maintain public confidence in the reliability of degree classifications.

This is why one of the OfS’s regulatory objectives is to ensure that qualifications hold their value over time. Today’s new data on trends in degree classifications is part of that process. We publish data on trends over time for the sector as a whole and for individual providers because transparency is an important regulatory tool – it draws attention to an important issue and prompts questions about the practice across the sector.

This is the second time we have published such data – in December we published analysis up to 2017; today we include 2018. Inevitably there is a time lag in such data, so the new data predate our call for action in December, and it is too early to see whether or not collective efforts by the sector to address these complex issues are bearing fruit.

And it is because we recognise that autonomous degree awarding bodies are responsible for setting and maintaining their own standards that we work with sector and student bodies seeking to support the sector to demonstrate that degree standards are maintained.

So, we welcome the steps the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) has taken to agree a set of classification descriptors as ‘sector recognised standards’ and to take other steps to protect the value of degrees. These include ensuring assessment continues to stretch and challenge students, reviewing and explaining how final degree classifications are calculated, supporting and strengthening the external examining system and publishing further data and analysis on students’ degree outcomes. We will consult over the coming months on whether, how and when the OfS should draw on some of these new sector-led activities in its regulatory framework.

In the meantime we are looking carefully at today’s analysis. It shows that there are statistically significant changes in the proportion of first class degrees awarded by virtually all providers. Our analysis takes into account a range of changes in student characteristics and identifies that a proportion of the increase cannot be explained by changes in these characteristics. There is an unexplained increase of 13.9 percentage points in the proportion of first class degrees awarded across the sector. We can see that closing attainment gaps for students from different backgrounds does not account for these increases and, as an evidence-led regulator, we want to improve our understanding of the element of the increase that remains unexplained.

To ensure that all universities, colleges and other registered providers are playing their part in maintaining the standard of degrees, we are likely to write to those providers that held degree awarding powers in 2010-11 and where the data show the most significant increases in the percentage of first class degrees awarded between 2010-11 and 2017-18. We’re focusing on providers with:

  • a statistically significant increase in the unexplained percentage of first class degrees awarded in a single year, or
  • a statistically significant overall increase in the unexplained percentage of first class degrees awarded between 2010-11 and 2017-18.

We will ask them to provide further information to help us understand how they account for these increases. We want to understand, for example, whether a provider has made recent changes to the way it calculates degree classifications, or whether it can point to other evidence – such as investment in staffing, teaching, services or facilities – that would credibly account for the ‘unexplained’ increase. We are also interested in the steps governing bodies have taken to ensure that academic governance arrangements are adequate and effective.

In seeking this additional information, we are not implying that the trends we can see in the published data indicate any form of wrongdoing from these providers – we are trying to understand better the reasons for performance that will be subject to public scrutiny and so are focusing our attention on those providers with the biggest unexplained increases. Given the significant public scrutiny of degree standards we want to understand how providers have assured themselves that they continue to apply consistent standards.

Doing so is essential to maintaining public confidence in degrees.

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