University grade inflation disputed

Graduation University degrees are not getting easier, say researchers

The rise in university degree grades - in which 70% achieved higher than a 2:2 last year - is not caused by grade inflation, claim researchers.

The rise reflects "better prepared" students with better A-level results, says a study from Lancaster University.

Figures last week showed only 25% of students were awarded 2:2s in 2012-13.

The Lancaster study argues that improvements in degree grades are in line with the rising quality of the intake, as shown by A-level grades.

The study from economists at Lancaster University Management School looked at the changes in degree grades in UK universities from 2005-12.

It wanted to establish whether degree grades could be "considered as realistic or involve any level of 'dishonesty'".

Rising tide

Researcher Kwok Tong Soo says there was no evidence of universities contributing to grade inflation - and that rising degree grades reflected what could be expected from rising A-level grades.

On average, there had been an improvement in the quality of intake of one A-level grade per student, he said.

DEGREE GRADES 2012-13

  • First class: 19%
  • Upper second (2:1): 51%
  • Lower second (2:2) 25%
  • Third class: 5%

Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency, full time first degree graduates

The only sign of "leniency" was among top universities, which researchers found were 8% more likely to award higher degrees, after the differences in A-level grades among their intake had been taken into account.

The study recognises that this is a "highly emotive subject" in which "educated people are loath to see their qualifications devalued by subsequent relaxation of standards".

However the researchers reject suggestions that universities have made it easier to get better degrees.

But Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, rejects the idea that improving A-levels are the underlying factor in rising degree grades.

He says universities are under pressure to improve their standing in league tables and that higher degree grades are a way of scoring more points.

Even if universities did not want to compete in this way, he says, it is difficult for them not to follow, putting academics under pressure.

Prof Smithers suggests that harder-working students might be another factor, with worries about the jobs market pushing them to achieve higher than a 2:2.

There have been concerns raised about the difficulty for employers in distinguishing between students' results, when so many degree grades are clustered at the upper end of the scale.

This was highlighted again last week when figures for 2012-13 were released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa), which showed that more than twice as many students achieved a 2:1 as a 2:2.

According to Hesa, in 2004-05, 11% achieved a first class degree, among full-time students last year, the figure was 19%.

This increase is part of a longer term trend. In the early 1990s, only about 8% of students achieved a first.

In the early 1980s, when fewer people entered university, about 60% achieved a lower second class degree, a 2:2, making it the most typical degree grade.

Now it is awarded to only about one in four and many major graduate employers use getting at least a 2:1 as a cut off for recruitment.

Martin Birchall, head of a graduate recruitment research company, said last week that three-quarters of the UK's top 100 graduate recruitment firms used a 2:1 degree as a minimum standard.

The Lancaster University researchers conclude their study by accepting that the debate is going to continue.

"The emotive nature of the content suggests that ours is unlikely to be the last word on the subject."

Why have degree grades improved? Are students getting better? Or are academics under pressure to improve grades?

I'm a lecturer, and I have been put under quite direct pressure by my superiors to inflate grades (not at my current institution, I hasten to add). In the past, I have seen courses or modules with low rates of 'good' degrees (1st or 2:1) asked to justify their results, and told to improve them. I have then seen emails sent to academic staff telling them in no uncertain terms to get the grades up one way or another. Words like 'leniency' often crop up in such emails. To their credit, academic staff don't tend to take kindly to this sort of instruction - but the pressure is there, for at least some of us.

Peter, UK

I'm a Lecturer, and I have never been put under pressure to inflate grades, nor have I heard of any such case. Exam papers are checked by an external examiner from another University to make sure that the level of difficulty is not changing over time, and if the paper is too easy or too hard this year, he will ask us to change it.

Chris, Reading

I'm a university lecturer, and I think this is in part due to a change in assessment methods. When I did my degree it was almost entirely exam based, a few modules had a small (10%) lab component. I had a final exam where I was expected to know everything I had learnt in the last 4 years. Now much more assessment is course work, whole units of labs, and soft skills, essays and problem solving. Students expect everything to carry a weighting for their degree or they won't do it. I can't attest to grade inflation, but I know that what I learnt in first year is now second year material, that students wouldn't have a chance with the exams I took as questions are far more broken down and guided than they used to be. Good students are still as good as ever I'm sure.

Fifi, UK

I am also a university lecturer. There is clear grade inflation but it comes from a number of pressures all working in the same direction. First, students now get to resit all or part of courses routinely. If you pass a student you don't have to mark or set a resit test. You also don't have to justify yourself to the head of department if no one fails. Second we are under strong pressure not to fail full fee paying overseas students. Third extensive coursework and modern technology make plagiarism routine and essentially unstoppable (although we make a show of trying to stop it). Last, government cuts make universities scared off putting off future students or losing the fees from current ones.

Peter, UK

I was a lecturer for 16 years and there was clear grade inflation. No doubt access to IT and new technologies have improved student learning. Assessment methods are less draconian and the practice of allowing multiple re-sits allow students to gain better grades. I personally witnessed members of academic staff pressured in to inflating grades to improve/maintain the institutions standing. Its not just our educational standards at stake here but our morality and integrity are bruised by this.

John, Brighton

Interesting comments from other institutions - but not consistent with all universities. At mine external examiners have criticised the rampant grade inflation and we now have minimum targets for degree classifications. If we don't meet them, we simply raise all the marks until we do. In addition the syllabus is simplified and many assessments, including exams, are seen - i.e. all the questions are made available in advance - so it is clear that the candidates should pass with higher grades.

Margaret, UK

As a university lecturer I am under constant pressure (direct & indirect) to ensure students pass my modules. The university is penalised in a number of ways, including league tables and reduced income, when students leave, so we have to do our best to keep students in the system. In my experience this is resulting in higher grades. Yes, there are very good students, as there always have been. But as the grades of the less able students are raised through leniency (and setting easier assessments) this is inflating all grades, and belittling the work of the more able students. I don't believe this is endemic across all HE institutions, but is increasingly the case as you move down the university league tables.

M , Wales

In 1980 roughly 3-5% of degrees awarded were First class. Now its around 20%. That's an increase of some 400-600%. That kind of change cannot possibly be explained by just having access to online past papers or even a modestly significant improvement in teaching standards. We're always being told (mainly by those working in education) that the huge improvement in grades at all levels is because our students are so much better than in the past and their teaching is better etc. And yet studies like the 2012 PISA tests show that the UK is actually declining in education standards. Any suggestion that young people today are somehow fundamentally far more capable, or cleverer, etc than their parents generation is obviously ridiculous. Those who seriously believe there hasn't been a great deal of grade inflation at degree level are deluding themselves. The losers, sadly, are those being awarded the grades because everyone knows that a First (say) these days just does not compare with one from 30+ years ago and its about time we stopped kidding ourselves otherwise. Perhaps they should introduce a First* grade.

Colin, Cambridge

At my institution (Russell Group University) we were told quite explicitly by senior management to increase the proportion of 1st and 2is we awarded in our department. We did this - under protest - by changing the weighting of continuous and end of year exams. I have been also told directly, again by very senior managers, to make courses easier so that overseas students can do better on them. My experience is not at all unusual. I haven't seen the details of the study described here, but in my experience, degree grade inflation is rampant and endemic across the HE sector.

Philip, Birmingham

When I attended UCL's law faculty between 1978 and 1981, two firsts were handed out in three years. around 20% of us were awarded a 2:1. Now I have no doubt that pupils are better prepared for examinations, although it is not clear that this makes them better lawyers. However there is no evidence of a step change in the average ability or intelligence of human beings in those 32 years. What is more, since 1980, the number of first graduates has increased by a factor of 5. So here in 2013, the number of students obtaining a 2:1 or a First is more than thrice the number of students obtaining any sort of degree in the 1980s. So grade inflation? Maybe not. It's hyperinflation.

Laurence, Twickenham

I did my degrees in the 1980s and have been a University lecturer until recently. I saw how standards are compromised, the external examiner system is a joke and I was under pressure to pass as many as possible. Anyone who believes students are getting better need only look at our performance in international competitions. Even employers don't believe the grades. Years ago your University grades were taken at face value. Now employers set tests at interview and they tell me that most of the candidates can't even get basic questions right, despite their first class degrees.

Andrew, Salisbury

I am a postgraduate and currently have three children at university. I think they were more rigorously prepared for A levels than I was at school, and their understanding and writing content is also better. School teachers seem to be doing a more consistent job, on a repeatable basis, than before. I also think that teaching materials and learning systems are far better than before, making subjects more accessible, resulting in better informed students. To me this is something of a revolution, thanks to teachers, educationalists and publishers. The UK depends on education and we should continue to pursue excellence and social inclusion via education. Other countries seem to "do" social inclusion better than we do, but we must persevere. Our young people today are hard-working champions, and so are their teachers.

Jeremy, Beaconsfield

I am a 3rd year Politics and History student at York. People here care a lot about their grades, getting a 2:2 or below even in first year is a bad sign because it makes it difficult to get onto any competitive internships and graduate schemes. In the current job climate it would be silly to coast on a 2:1. And for students in lower years, spending £9000 and not coming out with a decent degree would seem like a waste of money. I expect then because of this and the fear of not getting a job, in my university anyway, people put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed and thus get better grades. I don't students have got statistically cleverer.

Sophie, York

I think the increase in usage of online learning has helped students be better prepared for exams. Having lecture notes available to download at any time, any place, will invariably help revision, and mean that notes made in lectures are less essential. Furthermore, on a course's online page, students can find past papers (usually with answers and a mark scheme), as well as discussion forums. Compared to 15 or 20 years ago, this is a huge difference in available resources, and undoubtedly contributes to more successful results.

Jack, Sheffield

Here's something I wrote on the topic last year: http://hewatch.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/are-degree-awards-inflating-four-times-faster-than-gcses/ "...A further problem is that universities have different ways of calculating degree classifications. I've attended (and chaired) dozens of Exam Boards, many as an External Examiner. Regulations differ, and grey areas can usually be found. Some Boards take performance across all years of study into account; others don't. Some discount a student's lowest score; others factor in 'exit velocity' for those who perform strongly in their final semester. Most have a system for identifying 'borderline' students; some even have a separate policy for 'borderline borderlines'. No academic wants to disadvantage their own students."

Steven Jones, Manchester

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