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Universities take steps to curb grade inflation meaning fewer graduates will get top tier marks

Universities have agreed on a set of rules to tackle grade inflation following a rise in the proportion of top degrees awarded in recent years.

As part of the steps being taken, institutions have been told to commit to six principles, a report by Universities UK (UUK) said, that are likely to result in fewer first-class and upper-second degrees being awarded.

These include limiting the rounding up of grades and stopping the discounting of low marks in core and final-year modules from a student’s degree award. 

The principles also cover the importance of being transparent with students on how degree algorithms work and how they have performed against the learning outcomes.

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 body that monitors standards, the Quality Assurance Agency, discovered that a third of universities are practising ‘discounting’ under which not all marks were used to calculate a student’s degree classification. 

Around a third are also using multiple algorithms to calculate grades, a move that  could be inflationary.

The report says that only one algorithm should be used to calculate a degree classification and this should be clearly stated to students as they start their studies. 

It also says 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.

It suggests that there should be a maximum zone of consideration of two percentage points from the grade boundary with no additional rounding-up for borderline marks. 

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%.

Research by the Office for Students showed big rises in first-class degrees: at Imperial College London they rose from 31 per cent to 46 per cent, at University College London from 24 per cent to 40 per cent and at Durham University from 18 per cent to 38 per cent. 

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 more than 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.’

An analysis 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.

In total, 28 per cent of students graduated with a first in the last academic year and a further 48 per cent were awarded a 2.1, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistical Agency. 

This is double the percentage of students that were awarded a first a decade ago.

The higher education watchdog also found that students who left school with CCD or below at A-level are now almost three times more likely to graduate with first class honours than they were in 2010-11. 

A report suggested that this could not be simply as a result of students working harder. 

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.’

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