Grade Inflation: The Higher Education Context

President Kate Roberts and VP Education Alissa Chohan unpick the complicated topic of grade inflation, discussing what it is, what is being done to tackle the concerns around it, and what it means for you in the context of this academic year.

Degree algorithms, no detriment policies, zones of consideration… all of these phrases relating to the awarding of university degrees have been brought to the forefront over the last 12 months, as the impact of the pandemic has played out across Higher Education. One phrase in particular, which you will be familiar with from the media attention given recently to university degrees, is grade inflation. This blog aims to unpick what grade inflation actually means, and provide the Higher Education context for the current discussion around grade inflation.

What is grade inflation?

Grade inflation can be defined as a real or perceived upward trend in the average grades awarded to students for a particular level of academic achievement. This can occur through the increase in individual module marks, leading to increased higher degree classifications (1st and 2:1s) or through changes to the calculation or algorithm that is used to determine your final percentage, increasing the awarding of higher degree classifications independent of the increase in individual module marks. The Best 90 credit and Safety Net policies introduced last year were examples of how a change in the calculation or algorithm used could impact your overall percentage, despite your individual module marks remaining the same. As more students year on year are being awarded top classifications, this has sparked a conversation around grade inflation across the Higher Education sector.

Unpicking degree algorithms

Degree algorithms (the calculations/formulas used to derive your final percentage) are complex, and not often documented in a way that is accessible or comprehensible to students, and they are also very inconsistent. Each university has autonomy to set their own degree algorithm, thus what you achieve at one university could be vastly different to what you would be awarded at another one, despite achieving the same marks for your modules. For example, at Royal Holloway your final percentage is calculated in a normal year by weighting your second year results as one-third of the overall mark, and weighting your third year results as two-thirds of the overall mark, so that your third year is worth more in the calculation of your final result. There has been a gradual change in UK algorithms over the last ten years, in an attempt by universities to not disadvantage students in comparison to similar institutions. This has also contributed to grade inflation, despite individual module marks not changing.

However, degree algorithms do not account for the total grade inflation that has occurred in the UK. Perhaps teaching and learning has improved significantly to allow students to achieve better degrees? Or potentially the drive to reduce attainment gaps seen between different demographics, such as between white and black students, has created better outcomes for students? Or have changes in assessment practices, or improved learning support, led students to achieve better? These are examples of some positive reasons as to why students have achieved higher degree classifications over the past few years, but the Higher Education sector seems to have taken an overall negative view on these higher awarding patterns.

What has influenced the upward trend in grades?

The UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA)’s 2017 report suggests that much of the upward trend in grades seen across the sector has been legitimately influenced by enhancement in the teaching and learning that students receive (which may include improved resources, better tailored support for students, a greater focus on academic quality, or a greater focus on wellbeing and supporting the whole university experience). However, there are questions on how this is effectively measured across the Higher Education sector.

Alternatively, perhaps the UK Higher Education system has changed drastically since the introduction of higher tuition fees, spurring students to succeed and driving professionalism in academic representation? This may have also contributed to higher degree awarding patterns.

But, why does this matter?

The grade inflation we are observing is likely to have come about through higher quality education, a change in degree algorithms, and a desire for universities to keep in line with the sector and not disadvantage their graduates. So, why then does grade inflation matter and why has it become such a negative concern to the media? Surely the aim of universities is to support all students to succeed, no matter their background. However, their aim is also to provide graduates with the opportunity to succeed in the job market, a place which is currently still focused on degree classifications and outcomes. Research undertaken by the Institute of Student Employers in 2017 shows that 69% of graduate employers ask for a minimum of a 2:1 degree. The value of the degree therefore becomes very important in this discussion.

Grade inflation 'crisis'

The sector’s regulator, the Office for Students (OfS) is very interested in the change in degree classification patterns since the 2010-11 academic year (there is no particular reason that the OfS view this year as the ‘year zero’ of degree classification), and have been reporting grade inflation as a crisis for a number of years now. It appears that the government would like to know why more students are achieving what they consider ‘good’ (1st or 2:1) degrees, than their statisticians calculate they deserve based on the historic performance in the ‘golden’ year that was 2010-11. If the actual observed results are better than those predicted by the degree algorithm, the OfS considers the difference represents an ‘unexplained difference’, and thus accounts for the dreaded grade inflation. However, there are clear issues with a model that ignores the possibility that students might do better than predicted. We expect students to learn and grow during a three-year course that offers them the support and resources they need to exceed all expectations, so why then would this scenario not be represented in the regulator’s modelling?

Attainment gaps

The aspect of attainment gaps in these discussions also becomes very prevalent. Say for example, a university succeeds in closing their attainment gaps, and sees students achieving the same ratio of higher degree classifications as their peers, this is seen as a hugely successful initiative of education driven social mobility by the OfS’s Access and Participation team. But that’s a different department in the OfS, to those who scrutinise grade inflation. How do universities succeed in both social mobility and the stemming of grade inflation? Universities are under a lot of pressure to perform better, partly as a way of meeting performance targets set internally, and partly to succeed in certain league tables which include number of 1st class degrees in their rankings.

One of the solutions you may foresee to tackle grade inflation could be comparing the cohort results to a calculated yearly normal or average; which is known as norm-referencing. Say, for example, that only the top 10% each year should be awarded a first, the next 30% a 2:1, and so on. However, this soon becomes very problematic when you look at data that shows that there is a gap in earnings between students who achieve a 1st or 2:1 degree and those who achieve a 2:2 and below. You could end up giving two students with the same scores in two different years, vastly different degree classifications, which may lead to vastly different careers. All because that year’s cohort did better than average.

Multiple contributing factors

The reality of grade inflation is that it is messy and complicated, with a number of different factors seemingly contributing to the rise. Yet grade inflation does impact students through the concept of the value of your degree. If you get a 1st in a year where almost every student got a 1st, there is a risk that employers view this as less worthy than a 1st in a year when fewer students were achieving the top grades, also meaning that those students who go above and beyond to achieve that high class 1st have their achievements shadowed. There is a need for students and the wider public to have full confidence in the value of a university degree, and the impact it has on graduates' future careers and professions. Although, the pandemic does throw some interesting questions into the mix here about what level of grade inflation should be accepted as norm, and whether anything should be done to stem the rise.

All universities now acknowledge that grade inflation is a real challenge that needs to be addressed, but the path out of the current situation does not seem clear.

What is being done to help?

The UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) has introduced a number of measures over the last two years to help tackle the concerns surrounding grade inflation.

Firstly, they introduced their statement of intent in May 2019 in which universities agreed new commitments to address grade inflation. Following this, more recent work includes;

  • For the first time, UK-wide guidance has been produced for universities on degree algorithms. This will hopefully improve the consistency of these algorithms and reduce the variety between universities.
  • UK-wide degree classification descriptors have been published detailing for the first time what all four classifications (1st, 2:1, 2:2 and 3rd) actually look like in practice.
  • 87% of Universities have made changes to their external examiner process, through developing additional guidance and asking examiners to reflect on degree classification trends.
  • Universities within England and Wales have now published degree outcomes statements, detailing their final degree classifications for graduates, and setting out how data has been scrutinised.

What does it mean in the context of this academic year (2020-21)?

The exceptional circumstances created by the pandemic in 2020 led institutions to quite rightly adjust degree algorithms and take new measures to ensure fairness for students completing their studies in difficult circumstances. This was a response brought about due to the sheer unexpectedness of the situation and the unknown of what the next few months would bring. Many were not sure whether students would even be able to sit their exams and complete their studies. This likely impacted the proportion of 1st and 2:1 degrees awarded last academic year.

This academic year, there is a big focus on approaches to fairness, not compromising academic standards, but ensuring that students have a fair opportunity to succeed at the same level they may have succeeded if the situation was less difficult. Royal Holloway has introduced the Fairness and Assurance Policy in line with this view; you can find out more about it here.

As discussed in this article, grade inflation is a complicated issue and one which we believe will continue to be debated after the effects of the pandemic fade away. For us, the key question surrounds how you continue to raise standards and quality, eliminate attainment gaps, and support students as best as possible without baking in a whole batch of grade inflation and maintaining the value of the degree. There are some fundamental questions that arise from this, namely is our classification system in the UK fit for purpose for the students of the 2020s? We will have to wait and see where the sector takes this debate next.