University grade inflation under the spotlight | Letters

Readers respond as ministers promise to address concerns over the growing number of first-class degrees

I am a professor at a Russell group university with 27 years’ experience of teaching and assessment. I have worked as external examiner at almost a dozen other higher education institutions. I also have two children currently at university. Your front-page headline, “Crackdown on grade inflation at universities” (22 October), made my blood boil.

The latest cohort of university students are the product of 13 years of relentless assessment at primary and secondary school, driven by the ever-greater pressure of league tables which, owing to financial incentives, headteachers are largely powerless to resist. Do you think that is perhaps why today’s students are better at doing assessments than their predecessors?

They are also burdened with the most punitive student loan system in the developed world. Do you think that is perhaps why student mental health issues take up ever more of my time? Today’s students are the most anxious, driven and indebted generation I have ever encountered. They are also entering a job market where working conditions are becoming ever more “Uberised” and “Amazonified”.

Surely their struggles and achievements deserve our utmost respect and their prospects our sympathy and support? They certainly do not merit the fatuous reaction of the universities minister, Sam Gyimah, (PPE, Oxford 1995-98 before tuition fees were even introduced), whose identification of the value of degrees purely with the market misses the point entirely and undermines the true value of the degrees for which today’s students are sacrificing so much.
Simon Ditchfield
Professor of early modern history and director of the Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies, Department of History, Vanbrugh College, University of York

In 1990 I was appointed as University of London internal examiner for a new MSc degree, which would also serve as an entry level standard for Intellectual Property Practitioners’ professional qualifying examinations. It was, therefore, essential that the results remained uniform, year on year.

My class comprised 25-40 highly motivated postgraduate students, of whom around half were from overseas. Each year, I prepared an exam that included one compulsory question, drawn from the most important part of the syllabus and accounting for 40% of the total marks and two (of seven) optional questions (30% for each) drawn at random from the remainder of the syllabus. Scripts were marked independently by two internal academics and moderated by an external expert. The results were reviewed by a subject exam board and confirmed by a departmental exam board.

I maintained detailed records of the results. The average mark for the compulsory question provided an indication of the quality of that year’s class intake, while the average total mark each year moved consistently with that of the compulsory (class quality indicator) question. These parameters did not vary by more than 1 or 2%, while the histogram of the individual scores invariably followed a typical skewed Gaussian profile.

There was no need for grade inflation. I canvassed potential employers individually on behalf of meritorious students (who were also perfectly capable of speaking for themselves).
Prof Roger Cullis
Queen Mary Centre for Commercial Law Studies, University of London

It appears logical that having worked on grade inflation at GCSE and A-levels, the government should now announce plans to do the same in the higher education sector. The “rise in degree outcomes” clearly needs investigation to determine whether it has been caused by “legitimate improvement” or whether the “integrity of the system” is being undermined.

What is rather less logical, and therefore owing much to political ideology, is why the government is seemingly showing such little concern about the integrity of the examination system being undermined by the obvious grade inflation in Pre-U examinations. With many private schools and some state schools now opting for these examinations instead of A-levels, should there not be a similar “crackdown”? If the much higher percentages of A*-A grades awarded in all subjects in Pre-U exams than in traditional A-levels does not amount to grade inflation, what does?
Bernie Evans

The concern with grade inflation derives from an elitist belief that only a very limited minority deserves to receive the highest grades. This belief was reinforced by the norm-referencing system whereby the proportion of students able to receive each grade was predetermined. The clear unfairness of such a system has led, over the years, to the development of criterion-referenced systems whereby learning objectives are clearer and students achieving the requisite standards for each grade are rewarded accordingly.

As the aims of a course in respect of what a student should be expected to know and do become clearer, coupled with a greater knowledge of how people learn with concomitant improvements in teaching approaches, so performance improves. This is only what we would expect in other parts of the economy. In motor manufacturing, for example, we do not expect cars to be unchanged since the beginning of the motor trade. We expect far higher standards of, say, performance, comfort and economy.

Why are we so reluctant to accept that performance in education can improve? Grade inflation is, in many respects, an indicator of that improvement. It should be no surprise that students today achieve higher levels of performance than those of my generation. It would be concerning if it were not so.
Roy Boffy
Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands

With reference to grade inflation at UK universities, the following facts are pertinent. First, there has been a massive expansion in student numbers over the last 40 years, with a widening of access to students with a wider range of ability. Second, contact hours per student have decreased significantly as a consequence; no amount of technical fiddling with teaching methods can compensate for this. The fact that the proportion of first and upper second class degrees has increased means that standards have fallen. British universities are now mass-production degree factories offering a diminished product. On top of that, students now have to pay for it; the earlier high-quality product I received as a student in the 1960s was free. I was an academic at Aberdeen University for 26 years until I retired early in 2000 in despair and exasperation.
Nick Williams
Auchenblae, Aberdeenshire

• I have been involved in degree accreditation for several engineering professional bodies since 1981. Until the early 1990s, we were able to plot graphs of the A-level points required to start a degree course with the proportion of different grades of degree awarded. There was general consistency across hundreds of courses in different universities. Where the results for a particular course were significantly above or below the line, we could question the staff on why they were over generous to, or particularly hard on, their students.

In the last 20 years, the slow creep of grade inflation in various forms has moved most courses above the historic lines, making comparison more difficult. The professional bodies all conform to the general standards required by the Engineering Council as well as their own additional requirements for their particular field. These standards ensure the competence of new graduates entering professional practice. The grade of degree they are awarded is the responsibility of the individual universities.
Colin Ledsome
Chair of Council, Institution of Engineering Designers

• Does it not occur to the government that alleged grade inflation, in terms of the increase in first-class degrees, might be a direct consequence of the “marketisation” of higher education, and the transformation of universities into revenue-maximising businesses?

When fees were increased to £9,000, the then universities’ minister, David Willetts, claimed he wanted to put students in the driving seat, so that universities would have to be much more responsive to what their fee-paying “customers” wanted. This drastically changed the relationship between lecturers and students, placing academics under increasing pressure to keep their students happy, in order to ensure high scores in module evaluations (without which, academic career progression might suffer) and the National Student Survey, which in turn impacts upon universities’ positions in published league tables. A lower position can lead to a decline in student applications, a drop in income from student fees, and ultimately, departmental closures and job losses.

Under such a crazy regime, would it be surprising if some academics and universities felt compelled to award more firsts, in order to keep their student “customers” satisfied, avoid appeals and litigation, and maintain comparability with other universities in a competitive market? All of this would be a direct consequence of the Conservatives’ ideological obsession with forcing universities to operate as customer-led businesses.
Pete Dorey
Bath, Somerset

• Your article misses one reason for improved degree performance. Some years ago, many university entrants obtained places by family or other personal connections rather than academic ability. Since the universities have absorbed a wider cross-section of the population who enter on academic ability, it is to be expected that standards will improve.
Andrew Forson
Eckington, Worcestershire

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