Universities commit to more action to tackle grade inflation


Universities have agreed a set of principles to tackle grade inflation and protect the value of qualifications following a rise in the proportion of top degrees awarded in recent years.

Institutions should limit the amount of rounding up for borderline classifications, and discounting core and final-year modules from a student’s degree award should be avoided, a report by Universities UK (UUK) said.

It comes after universities minister Michelle Donelan warned this month that too many institutions have felt pressured to “dumb down” the standards of courses, or when admitting students.

The commitment from UUK and GuildHE, on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment [UKSCQA], outlines six principles which cover the importance of being transparent with students on how degree algorithms work and how they have performed against the learning outcomes.

The report, which highlights examples of recommended good practice, says:

– Only one algorithm should be used to calculate a degree classification and this should be clearly stated to students as they start their studies.

– Discounting core or final-year modules should not be an option and any form of discounting should be minimised. Students should also be given clear instructions on how discounting some credits will apply to their final award.

– There should be a maximum zone of consideration of two percentage points from the grade boundary with no additional rounding-up for borderline classifications. For example, this would allow reconsideration of a mark of 68% for a first-class degree, but no consideration of a mark of 67.99%.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has previously warned the increasing proportion of students being awarded top grades was “undermining our world-class reputation”.

Speaking in January after Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) figures showed that over 28% of students at UK universities graduated with a first class degree last year, Mr Williamson said: “The levels of firsts and upper second honour degrees remain at an all-time high.

“Universities are expected to use their awarding powers responsibly and must not inflate grades for their own reputation or league table ranking.”

A PA news agency analysis of the data in February found that soaring numbers of firsts were being handed out by universities, with some giving at least a third of degrees the top honour.

Nearly all UK universities and colleges saw an increase in firsts in the last five years – and at 25 institutions, at least 33% of degrees awarded in 2018/19 were given a first, the analysis found.

Professor Andrew Wathey, chairman of the UKSCQA and vice-chancellor of the University of Northumbria, said: “These principles demonstrate consistency and transparency in the way that final degree classifications are awarded in UK universities.

“Universities are committed to taking visible action to address the issue of grade inflation. It is more important than ever that the public has full confidence in the value of a UK university degree and that degree classifications are meaningful for employers and students.”

Susan Lapworth, director of competition and registration at the Office for Students (OfS), said: “Left unchecked, grade inflation risks damaging public confidence in degrees.

“All universities and colleges registered with the OfS need to ensure that qualifications awarded to students hold their value at the point of qualification and over time, in line with sector-recognised standards.

“It is for individual universities and colleges to decide how to meet this and other requirements, and the OfS welcomes actions taken by the sector as a whole to assist providers in doing so.”

Professor Debra Humphris, chairwoman of UUK’s student policy network and vice-chancellor of the University of Brighton, said: “It is vital that we protect the value of UK degrees and these principles are another important step in ensuring that students can continue to take pride in the qualifications they work so hard to achieve.”

Dr David Llewellyn, chairman of GuildHE and vice-chancellor of Harper Adams University, said the joint report is “an important addition” to the work the sector has been doing to protect standards.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “UUK’s intervention is a positive first step towards reversing grade inflation.

“The proportion of Firsts awarded has more than tripled since 2000, from 9% to 28%. There is still much more to do for universities to correct this issue and restore an appropriate grade profile.”