Blog: Understanding grade inflation

02 July 2018

Sarah Stevens, Head of Policy, looks at the complex reasons behind the increase in the number of students getting firsts and 2:1s in universities.

The debate on grade inflation is important. No one wants to see the value of university degrees diminished; not employers, graduates or parents, and certainly not universities. It is right that we ask why the proportions of firsts and, to a lesser extent, 2:1s being awarded are on the rise. The Secretary of State has made his concerns clear and it is in the sector’s interest to ensure that the systems by which grades are awarded are credible and robust.

We must be wary, however, of simplistic assessments that make easy assumptions about cause and effect. The truth is there are a wide range of factors that influence degree attainment at university, and further work is needed to disentangle them all. Until this work has been done, we cannot know which policy levers are the right ones to pull.

On their own, recent trends do not prove that grades are being artificially inflated. This may be part of the explanation, but there are good reasons to believe that, over time, performance has also improved.

Today, many of the students arriving at university have achieved better grades at school than their predecessors. The UCAS tariff score on entry for graduates of Russell Group universities has risen by 82 points over the period from 2007/8 to 2016/17. This is roughly equivalent, for example, to the difference between a student getting ABB at A level versus a student achieving three A*s. As attainment at school rises, it is reasonable to expect this will feed through into higher attainment at degree level. Recent reforms to school-level qualifications are likely to complicate the picture, though, as content and assessment methods for A-levels have changed, which may impact on trends in attainment. 


Analysis, which takes account of prior attainment at school, shows that there is limited evidence of grade inflation at degree level for cohorts of students achieving the highest A level grades – although this is not necessarily the case for those achieving lower A level grades. It is clear therefore that factors other than prior attainment can also impact on attainment at degree level. 

In recent years the cost of university, in the form of increased tuition fees, may be motivating students to work harder, as may perceptions of an increasingly competitive jobs market. Research has also found that there is a significant relationship between student engagement and academic achievement. Especially important are cognitive and behavioural engagement and achieving a “sense of belonging”. The annual UK Engagement Survey undertaken by the Higher Education Academy has shown that student engagement across a range of areas is increasing over time, including on critical thinking, research and inquiry, and interacting with other students and staff. Approaches which encourage academic engagement by students are, therefore, likely to be key to improving degree attainment.

Support for students including those from under-represented backgrounds in their transition to university has also been shown to improve degree outcomes. For example, the provision of bursary funding can improve completion rates and can increase recipients’ chances of getting a first or a 2:1. Over the last five years, support for disadvantaged and under-represented students at Russell Group universities to succeed on their courses (through transition support, mentoring, careers advice, etc) has more than trebled, and we can expect this to feed through into higher degree attainment for these groups of students. Indeed, attainment gaps by ethnicity have narrowed over time.

Crucially, improvements in teaching quality itself are very likely to lead to an overall increase in student performance with time. Teaching quality is difficult to measure, and the TEF methodology is still in development and will be subject to an independent review next year. However, trends in student satisfaction, continuation (students finishing their degrees) and professional employment – the core metrics that feed into TEF assessments – have all been positive over recent years. For example, over the last five years the proportion of full-time UK graduates in professional employment six months after graduation has risen from 64% to 71% - despite the fact that student numbers have risen significantly over the same period.

Until we understand how these various factors are influencing degree outcomes, it’s impossible to distinguish between “legitimate” rises in degree attainment and circumstances in which grades may be being artificially inflated. The ongoing work Universities UK is undertaking with the Quality Assurance Agency, GuildHE and the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment to understand the evidence around grade inflation – and to propose some solutions – is therefore very welcome. In the coming months it will be important for the sector to show Government and the Office for Students that we are taking this issue seriously if we are to avoid interventions which risk doing more harm than good.

The recent proposal by Reform is a case in point. The thinktank has called for grade-setting to be taken over by designated assessment bodies. But universities are not big schools. Introducing a national assessment on a “core curriculum” would force all universities to teach the same subject content, jeopardising the diversity in courses and approaches which defines the UK’s highly successful higher education system. This would dramatically reduce student choice, penalise specialist and interdisciplinary courses and make it increasingly difficult for institutions to foster their own unique cultures and identities.

Enforcing a set distribution of firsts, 2:1s and so on for each cohort of students across the sector rather than awarding grades based on whether students have met set criteria for their course of study could also serve to demotivate students and would fail to reflect genuine improvements made by students. This could actually serve to accentuate rather than remedy the perceived issue of grade inflation at some institutions where – as a result of a combination of high standards and student characteristics – grades would be likely to rise further.

As our understanding of the trends that are driving rising degree attainment increases, any inflationary practices taking place can be addressed effectively and in a targeted way. Work by UUK to produce a reference document to clarify how the sector defines degree classifications, and to aid transparency and consistency in their use, will be important in improving understanding within the sector and more broadly.


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