Degree classification and grade ‘inflation’

This summer has seen an awful lot of ink expended on issues of degree quality and ‘grade inflation’. I don’t particularly want to wade in on one side or the other, largely because the issue is incredibly complex, in a way that many of the ‘commentators’ in the media (and in Parliament) over the summer either could not grasp or chose to ignore. Let me just make a few observations:

I instinctively dislike the term grade inflation. It carries a lot of (deliberately disparaging) baggage. Inflation is not a neutral term. Inflation implies a reduction in value. By even engaging in the debate in the language of inflation we are therefore, from the outset, assuming something that needs to be proved; not just that we are awarding more Firsts and Upper Seconds, but that this is wrong and devalues the status of our degrees. This in turn also assumes that our assessment practices twenty or thirty years ago were superior to those in place today, and that assumption should certainly be challenged.

And this is where we have to come back to the problem of complexity. Whether we like it or not, we are not comparing like with like. When Norman Baird at qed law produces a table showing that most law schools are awarding substantially more First and 2:i’s in 2007 than in 1997, then we can certainly acknowledge that is interesting (though why 16 law schools were apparently awarding less in 2007 is more counter-intuitive and possibly even more interesting), but as Norman himself acknowledges, it is just a snapshot, based on some very simple percentages. It tells us nothing about which of those changes (if any) are statistically significant; it does not indicate whether either of those years chosen was atypical for that law school, so we have no sense of the outliers, and, obviously, it tells us nothing about the underlying practices that might account for that change. And there are a lot of candidates to explain the changes, mostly well known, including:

  • changing teaching and assessment methods;
  • possible changes to student motivation and prior learning;
  • availability of more student support mechanisms in HE;
  • possibly greater individual and institutional pressures on teachers to give higher marks (including the growing recognition that marks may need to be defensible if challenged)
  • maybe even the recognition in law that the practice of marking across a narrow band of marks, relative to other disciplines, is not defensible when you are dealing with what is usually one of the most able cohorts of students in the university.

This is where it starts to get a bit more contentious. We know we are no longer, as a system, dealing purely with the top 5% by educational attainment. And rightly so. But this has consequences; more work has to be done by departments and institutions to support those whose prior learning experience has not necessarily prepared them well for traditional higher education. Within the pressures of a crowded curriculum, that is difficult. This seems to me to expose the biggest elephant in the room. It is surely not sensible to graft the expectations of an old elite system, in which a relatively small number of students who, frankly, had the cultural and intellectual capital to succeed almost regardless of the education they received, onto a modern mass system.

In short, I don’t think we are facing a crisis of degree standards, but I think we do have some artificial expectations of what a mass system of HE can and should achieve, and a certain amount of political dishonesty about the consequences of massification; and universities have, to some extent, been complicit with government in that process.

If we really wanted the ‘standards’ of an elite system in a mass environment, we would need to resource the environment much better, and more logically (most degrees still operate an illogical system of resource allocation, whereby, as much by default as by design, a larger pro rata share of resources are spent on the later years, rather than on the critical first year of the programme). It would also have to become politically acceptable to have higher initial failure rates. Neither of these things are likely to happen. And I don’t actually have a lot of problems with that. But we surely do have to accept that, in a mass system, the purpose, scope, and value of an undergraduate degree is different from what it once was. That is not to say necessarily better or worse, just different. To some degree, the market is already doing this for us, though, of course, fairly arbitrarily, and without much sensible public debate.

As it is we have at best a hybrid (some might just say confused) system, and the teachers – the poor bloody infantry in all this – have to work out how to fix a machine that, ultimately, is constitutionally broken. What are the fixes? Here are a couple of starters for ten for this particular university challenge:

  • The classification system as both the Burgess Report and the QAA have pointed is well beyond its sell-by date. It should be replaced, though personally I would favour a more radical solution than Burgess’s transcript; possibly a grade point system.
  • Perhaps we should also consider an institutionalised move to marking on the ‘bell curve’ for larger modules. If this is done transparently across the sector (a job for the Committee of Heads of University law Schools perhaps?), it could act as a potential brake on creeping grade inflation, as any move of the median grade would have to be at least reported, possibly agreed, within the sector. Moreover, ‘marking to the curve’ seems a fairer way of accounting for marker variations (including teacher experience and expectations; year-on-year variations between papers, etc) than our current supposedly ‘objective’ system.

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