After I projected my concern that unconditional offers were weakening the education system, my focus remained on education and soon after the issue of grade inflation soon found itself in the iron sights.

Grade inflation is the practice of UK universities unjustly awarding high grades (first class or upper second) to its students. The Office for Students report that ‘the percentage of first and upper second degrees awarded has increased from 67 per cent in 2010-11 to 78 per cent in 2016-17, while the percentage of first-class degrees has increased from 16 per cent to 27 per cent’. I regret to inform that the problem is widespread with the Office for Students discovering that 124 out of 148 institutions were implicated in having ‘statistically significant’ and ‘unexplained’ grade increases.

Grade inflation is very similar to unconditional offers in that it reduces competitiveness, lowers standards and quashes ambition, in other words, a perfect fit for Britain’s modern and degrading education system. But grade inflation is more sinister than unconditional offers for one key reason. Unconditional offers are just that – offers – where one is at liberty to either accept or reject despite any incentives put forward, identical to contracts in the world of commerce.

But grade inflation is directly engrained into a university’s marking system meaning that there is none of the ‘avoiding the easy route in hope that it pays off at the end’. All students are stuck in this and there is nothing they can do to pull themselves free of this burden.

This must be of immense frustration to the top students who must now share the same reward and thereby making it more difficult to distinguish themselves from those less deserving of the highest grades. The number of students gaining first class degrees is still on an upward trend with an increase of 2 per cent in the past year alone, further reducing the variation in student attainment.

Let’s not neglect the fact that the role of a degree itself is to make one more competitive amongst their peers and the role of having different grades in the first place (first class through to a fail) is to further facilitate this. It is widely accepted that a degree is not the end but the means; the degree unravelling a pathway to a successful future. This makes the degree classification more than just a piece of paper: It is a statement regarding one’s work ethic, character and skillset. Therefore, this vital component of education is being shattered by the university system herding over 75 per cent of students into the top grades. Even if over 25 per cent are getting the very best grade of a first class, how can you tell who is the very best?

This problem is of increasing concern to employers who are now unsure how skilled or competent applicants are relative to others as degree classifications are not painting an accurate picture. When once employers would look amazed at the sight of a first-class degree (or even a degree at all), the reaction would now be one of suspicion and confusion.

Under the laws of supply and demand, oversupply leads to a fall in price and price translates to the value of a good or service. As such, it can be logically concluded that the over-abundance of first class and upper second degrees leads to devaluation, similar to how an oversupply of degrees caused the degree itself to lose its value. Like how many professions now require a degree to filter out applicants, do not be surprised if some start requiring firsts and upper seconds.

This has led to some concern in government that UK universities are losing their reputation as world leading institutions capable of generating high quality graduates which forced the hand of former education secretary Damian Hinds to grant additional powers to the Office for Students which included the use of large fines to deter grade inflation. But as universities create their own results for their students, one might wonder why grade inflation must occur at all.

Surely universities would be concerned about their reputation as a hub of research and knowledge? Well, they certainly are but their concern only stretches so far when attending another issue: the need for as many UCAS applications as possible.

Figures show that grade inflation began to skyrocket after the increase in student fees to £9000 per year implying that universities were looking to cash in on these new loans. If a university gets as many of its students the top grades as reasonably possible, they can advertise this to potential newcomers, of whom the vast majority are only after a degree and the higher odds of achieving a good degree, the more likely they are to send in an offer. Soon more universities started doing this leading to a vicious cycle of grade inflation as universities had to improve their results further than before.

When looking for potential universities to apply to, the rankings tables are a good place to start and more top degree grades is factored into a certain institution’s place on the table. It could have been the case that universities tried to gamble with grade inflation only for it to completely backfire. Also, given the vast sums of money students invest in their education, along with fierce competition amongst universities for these loans, it is vital that student satisfaction is high. Who would want to go into debt by the thousands only to emerge with a 2.2? But due to the level of grade inflation, who would now want to walk out of university without a first?

Rather than profusely apologising and promising to scale back on inflating grades, universities have gone on the defensive, citing better teaching and more investment in facilities to be the causes of the sudden upsurge in top grades.

However, even accounting for these changes, or any other factor, it still does not account for the sudden increase in grades because, as stated before, Office for Students refers to the rising figures as ‘unexplainable’ and ‘statistically significant’.

The most convincing counterargument to the notion that grades are being artificially inflated is that students are simply working harder than they were before which is down to better A-level grades and the absurd cost of student loans pressuring students to fully commit to their studies. A convenient excuse I might add because it is near impossible (at the very least impractical) to study and quantify work ethic.

Hundreds of surveys will need to be conducted and peer-reviewed relating to hours spent revising, books read in a week or even the number of lectures attended. Then of course similar studies conducted years ago would need to be retrieved to make any sort of comparison, if those studies exist. But this clearly isn’t the case either as grade inflation is on the rise more amongst those with the lowest A-level grades with the Office for Students noting that ‘graduates who entered higher education with the equivalent of grades CCD or below at A-level were almost three times more likely to graduate with first class honours in 2016-17 than in 2010-11’. Either those with top A-level grades have gotten lazy at university or those with lower grades have improved their study habits exponentially. But I don’t buy this for the simple fact that qualifications are good indicators of how diligently and efficiently one worked towards achieving them so they can be a good predictor of future endeavours into higher education.

Grade inflation is more prevalent at lower end universities (those that takes students with low A-level grades) as graduates must rely more on their degree classifications than the prestige of the institution and as usual, better employment statistics and high student satisfaction is good publicity.

One solution to grade inflation is the removal of student fees, as some have argued that the marketisation of higher education has led to this, coercing universities into awarding more top grades than ever before. The only issue with this is that grade inflation would still occur as loans would not be given to the student but would go straight to the university, however high the cost of university would be.

This means that universities would still be after as many applicants as possible and it is likely that there would be an even greater number of applications now that students would not bear the cost of their education (although would eventually when they are taxpayers). Another potential remedy is to put strict quotas onto the percentage of students who can earn a first class, upper second and so forth. Put into practice, this would mean that only 10 per cent of students could graduate with a first class, then only the top 10-50 per cent could graduate with an upper second and so on.

These changes would revitalise standards and foster more competitiveness amongst students, but it is still not a perfect system. Nevertheless, something needs to be done to end grade inflation.

 

Photo by By Long Road Photography on Flickr.