Grade inflation remains an 'issue' in higher education

The proportion of students obtaining an 'unexplained' first remains much lower at colleges offering HE than the average across higher education institutions

Julia Belgutay

Grade inflation has slowed but continues to be a problem in HE, the OfS has said

Grade inflation remains a significant issue in English higher education, according to the Office for Students – although figures show the proportion of student obtaining firsts at college remains below average.

Analysis published by the OfS today found that the rapid increase in students receiving first-class honours degrees that cannot be explained by factors that may affect attainment has slowed across all HE providers.

However, chief executive Nicola Dandridge said it was clear that grade inflation “remains a significant and pressing issue in English higher education”.

According to the OfS, a total of 29.5 per cent of students included in the analysis received a first-class honours degree in 2018-19. Of these, 14.3 percentage points are unexplained when compared with attainment in 2010-11.

This is an increase of 0.4 percentage points since 2017-18. In 2010-11, the reference year for the study, 15.7 per cent of students received a first. 

The data also shows that students entering university with A-level (or equivalent) grades below DDD were almost four times as likely to receive a first-class degree in 2018-19 as their counterparts in 2010-11. 

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The OfS data includes information for 28 colleges offering higher education courses – although the size of cohort varies hugely. Across those institutions, the number of graduates rose from 3,000 in 2010-11 to 3,675 in 2018-19, and the proportion of these students who obtained a first also increased from 16.1 per cent to 21.8 per cent in 2018-19.

The proportion of students obtaining what the OfS labels an “unexplained” first at these colleges more than doubled in the years since 2011 – from 3.6 per cent to 9.3 per cent, on average – but remained much lower than the average across all institutions offering HE.

Ms Dandridge said: “This data shows that the increase in the proportion of first-class degrees awarded in 2018-19 has slowed compared with previous years, with a small increase from last year in the percentage of first-class degrees which cannot be explained by other factors. While this may indicate that the brakes have been applied, it is clear that grade inflation remains a significant and pressing issue in English higher education. 

“Overall, this data represents a mixed picture. It may well be that factors we don’t account for in our modelling, including improved teaching and learning, have driven some of the increase that we have seen in recent years. There are also some striking changes at some of those universities which had previously awarded high proportions of firsts, although there is increased evidence of an unexplained increase in firsts at 73 per cent of universities. 

“Unexplained grade inflation risks undermining public confidence in higher education, and devaluing the hard work of students. Degrees must stand the test of time, which is why the OfS will continue to address this issue at both a sector-wide and individual university level.”

She said the OfS had launched a consultation this week with proposals that would help strengthen the OfS' ability to regulate quality and standards.

She added: “These proposals, if taken forward following the consultation process, would let us intervene where evidence suggests that the standards set and recognised by the sector are not being met in practice by an individual university, college or other higher education provider.”

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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