A Head Master Writes - The Sunday Times blog

Universities: last bastions of grade inflation?

Shocking figures revealed by The Sunday Times today show that grade inflation in university degrees is not just alive and kicking, but spiralling out of control.

It is bad enough that on average UK universities now award over 30% more firsts and 2.1s than they did in 1998; but what words are left in the lexicon of open-mouthed incredulity to do justice to Liverpool John Moores university? They have seen their proportion of top degrees rise by a staggering 83% in less than two decades. Or to Bournemouth, now awarding 68% more firsts and 2.1s than it did in 1998?

Either the tutors at these universities, and others like them, are overseeing a scholastic transformation the like of which out-boffins the Renaissance, or the figures are a fiction. Of course, these degree outcomes are based on questions taught, set and marked by their own staff, and so the possibility for self-delusion is extremely high. If so, they are not only deceiving themselves, they are also deceiving their own undergraduates by paying them with fool’s gold. Worst of all, they are deluding employers. Top firms, overwhelmed with graduate applications, unwittingly stoke grade inflation by stating that candidates with a 2.2 – from any university – need not apply. This in turn puts enormous pressure on universities to show potential students just how few of their predecessors have gained what was, until relatively recently, a perfectly respectable degree.

According to a poll of top employers published in 2012, 76% of graduate recruiters now refuse to look at anyone with less than a 2.1. The survey, commissioned by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, included more than 200 firms including Rolls Royce, Deloitte and Marks and Spencer.

At least the method would be fair if every university’s 2.1 was comparable, but these figures show this is plainly not the case. If Liverpool University has seen its number of firsts and 2.1s surge by 54%, while at Cambridge the growth is just 3%, can we honestly believe that a graduate with a 2.2 from each institution is of identical merit? Does it make the slightest sense for a leading business to reject a graduate with a 2.2 from Nottingham University (less than 2% growth in top degrees) in favour of one with a 2.1 from Coventry (63%)?

All inflation, like counterfeiting, is a form of theft, and its impact spreads far and wide, often with unforeseen consequences. Weaker universities with few attractions, especially in the more market-led economy of today’s high tuition fees, must make the most of what attributes they have. In this case, one of these appears to be an elastic academic morality, enabling them to reward their own students with improbably good degree results. Maybe that fills a few more places, but it defrauds students and the many employers foolish enough to believe that there is some sort of parity across the UK’s vastly different universities.

In July, the universities minister, Jo Johnson, pointed out that there has been a 300% increase in firsts since the 1990s. A Guardian survey of academics earlier this year found that over 50% of academics had felt pressure to push up student grades. The narrative is clear, and the actions needed are obvious too.

Michael Gove fought the hydra-headed monster of school exam grade inflation and showed that standards can be restored. It is time Mr Johnson acted with similar courage against these fantasy degree results. He must require universities to introduce new forms of outcome that allow a credible spread of results, and he must find a way of monitoring each university far more successfully than the current toothless system of peer review allows. In doing so, he will compel the worst offenders to solve the real problems these fraudulent results attempt to hide – or go bust trying.

Andrew Halls
Head Master

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