From education to employment

University Grade Inflation: It All Started with the Class of ’92

Neil Wolstenholme

Ah! The Class of ’92! Becks, Scholesy, Gary Neville.……, no, not that class! This article is about the other Class of ’92; Trent, Hallam, John Moores.

The Series: This is the third of a four-part series on university #GradeInflation; we’ll explore the evidence, the defence by universities, the underlying causes, and the possible ways to resolve the problem.

This one is about the underlying causes. Why has it happened? Please read on.

There have been many contributory factors to the explosion of ‘good’ degrees:

Polys Becoming Universities:

This unification of the Class of ’92 had the objective of achieving mass education and instantaneously doubled the number of unis; it was promoted at the time on the basis of the Thatcherite maxim ‘competition is good’. As the ex-polys and new unis spread out, post expansion, from engineering to the humanities, this led to blurring of the educational lines vocational and academic, putting all ‘degrees’, which cover a wide range of quality, on an equal footing.

As any Physics grad with a good degree would tell you, the Second Law of Thermodynamics predicts that when you combine two bodies, a heat transfer occurs and you end up with a combined temperature somewhere in the middle; you get dilution.

There are now around 130 universities dotted about the UK, hawking 30,000 different undergraduate courses and it has led to a confusing multidimensional matrix and oversupply of meaningless qualifications.

High profile commentators are now speaking out against the number of universities and courses, calling for a reversal and rationalisation.

The only beneficiaries out of all of this are the media selling their good university guides and, of course, the ex-polys, who are the main offenders for shifting the degree distribution statistics as we saw in the second article.

The Graduate Earning Premium:

Big corporations started taking on graduates in a structured way in the early 80s as it was a method of filtering out the ‘bright’ students who had been through the mill of studying hard and living away from home.

As there was limited supply, salaries for these graduates increased and the graduate premium was born. It was promoted as part of Blair’s “Education, Education, Educationmantra to feed the UK’s knowledge-based economy; some studies quote that the premium has equated to £100k over a lifetime.

That was then. In the future, with oversupply of graduates in the market, this premium will be eroded to less than zero for most graduates once debt and competition are taken into account. This well-publicised benefit of the graduate premium is part of the…..

Social Narrative:

When I went to uni all those years ago, ‘the uni experience’ wasn’t deemed to be a key component of a successful young person’s life path. In fact, I remember having to deal with myriad questions from family and friends like: ‘what’s the point in going to university?’ and ‘where will a degree in Physics from Bristol get you?’ They were tough questions to answer at 18 and I didn’t know the answers, but it made you think about what you wanted to achieve and why it was important to determine your own route, which may involve swimming against a strong current.

Fast forward to now and it seems that going to uni is a rite of passage, it’s normal, in fact, you’re deprived if you don’t go. It is the current and forms a fundamental component of the life equation:

For young people, this narrative has been very powerful as it appears as though the positive life outcome is down to cause and effect.

Maybe parents reinforce this by overlaying their regrets and dated aspirations. However, the pendulum has swung way too far over the other way and the step sequence of the happiness equation doesn’t work.

Nonetheless, the narrative will be hard to reverse.

Tuition Fees:

The sudden surge in higher grades coincides and correlates very neatly with the staging posts of the tuition fees; £1,000 announced in 1998 then £3,000 in 2006 and on to £9,000 in 2012.

The UK now has one of the most expensive higher education systems in the world and I agree with Sorana Vieru at the National Union of Students, who says:

The current fees system in the UK makes Higher Education inaccessible to many, and those who do attend University are likely to be paying for their degree for most of their adult lives.”

That is, till it’s written off. A number of recent graduates have told me that they don’t think they’ll pay down their loans as they don’t believe their salaries will reach high enough levels; wow, this suggests these intelligent young people don’t really understand the consequences of a gigantic financial decision, which is wrong.

Maybe they think it’s free until they experience the conflict with paying a mortgage.

Another big flaw in the fee system is that the prices are the same wherever you take your degree and whatever the subject is. In a free market economy, surely courses at Cambridge would cost a lot more than Bolton?

Because students are paying fees, the emphasis now has switched from education to…..

Value for Money:

The social narrative has arguably had a big impact. Back in the day, I studied for me and my personal development. I swotted to test myself and achieve something that would open my mind to the world around me.

I learned how to learn; you had to, the teaching was that bad! But it was ‘free’; well, apart from the ridiculously basic living expenses and the opportunity costs of not getting a job.

It’s hard to get away from the fact that universities are businesses (and very good businesses) and are there to make money (and lots of it).

To do that, you have to maximise the number of students, charge high fees, make your customers satisfied. The paradox has been that as fees have been introduced and increased, the number of students going to HE has increased.

Freshers’ ‘pub economics’ would conclude that numbers should fall. The narrative is powerful. With the focus now on getting a job after university, this search for VFM is reflected in the subjects which undergraduates are taking.

Social studies and computer science have four times the number of graduates as in 1995, but the current record-holder is Business Studies, accounting for 18% of all grads (141k) in the UK in 2019.

By my reckoning, academic-‘Lite’ subjects now account for about 40% of all university places. Interestingly, these subjects generally have the lowest grad premium attached.

Although, part of the sell for all faculties is to link courses to employability skills, so they promise you’ll gain transferable skills even from medieval language courses, to make you believe there will be a payback for all of the financial burden and that you’re getting more than just enjoyment.

League Tables:

Straight after the new dawn in ’92, league tables were introduced and new reputations were forged, as the unis scrambled for their positions in that table. The higher up the table you lie, then the more students you are likely to attract, more ‘better’ students at that and, of course, the more revenue floods in.

Yet, according to the Higher Education Liaison Officers Association:

League tables are often closely bunched together at the top, middle and bottom, so don’t read too much into universities placed five to 10 places apart. A university in 20th place is usually separated by the one in 30th by only a few percentage points. This is also why some unis and courses fluctuate from year to year. Small differences in score can mean big differences in placing.” 

That’s good to know, if you’re in the know, but for a 17-year-old with little support at home or at school checking out universities online for the first time, it’s the definitive guide and probably misleading. Because it’s confusing, young people want the decision to be made for them, it makes life easier.

However, in the era of ‘first page of Google’, people don’t scroll down the page, so rankings do matter. I’ve come across about ten different league tables in the UK and that’s before considering International tables.

So, my question is: if the differences are small, why have league tables? Or, why not just have names for ‘top’, ‘middle’ and ‘bottom’?

One of the key components of the league table ranking is……

Student Satisfaction:

Anthony Seldon 2018 100x100

In 2016 Buckingham University was ranked number one in student satisfaction and the Vice-chancellor, Sir Anthony Seldon, described that more students were choosing Buckingham over larger universities because, instead of “big, impersonal lectures,” their academics have “an open door policy,” so students can get help whenever they need it.

He added: “It isn’t surprising we’re ahead of Oxford and Cambridge. Our students are taught by lecturers, many of whom are leading academics in their field.” 

But, of course, he’s telling the students that and they believe it! How do they know any better, they have had nothing to compare it with?

My favourite teacher at school gave us no homework and top grades; now, remind me what that’s called…?

So, allow me to let the cat out of the bag, the secret to a good feedback score in student satisfaction is to give out lots of good degrees and upgrade the accommodation. All good VFM, with few complaints. Student satisfaction is a key component of the VFM algorithm and unis know that it is a variable they can control.

Student satisfaction is the big carrot some unis use to attract students. One University advertise that they are 4th in terms of student satisfaction on one particular league table. That’s Champions League! Yet, on the same table, it lies 130th in terms of graduate prospects.

Translation: you’ll have a whale of a time, but you won’t get a job. Good luck!


All UK universities are private, autonomous, independent and as a result they are permitted to set their own standards, a fact many people are unaware of. It’s this autonomy which is pushing higher education to the abyss.

Allied to this, the cap on student numbers at each institution was lifted in 2015; it means that there is an arms race as some universities are scrambling to rapidly increase places through a unscrupulous mixture of reducing offers, unconditionals and acceptance whether entrance grades are achieved or not.

This will result in crowding out and there’ll be casualties. Look out, there’s already a precedent for this in Australia, where abolishing the cap led to a surge in low performers being accepted and standards dipping.

Degree Algorithms:

Each university has its own methodology of determining the grades of subjects taken by students. These algorithms, most people call them calculations, are applied to the exam population and include fancy techniques of ‘discounting’ and ‘compensation’, which basically enable border-line students to, literally, upgrade their results.

Nick Hillman100x100

One of the main issues has been that the universities have regularly changed their methods in order to ‘align’ with competitors.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), commented that:

Universities are essentially massaging the figures, they are changing the algorithms and putting borderline candidates north of the border.”

Och aye, lads and lassies, help yourselves to a first!


The high percentage of good degrees feeds into the league tables and is useful for marketing, enticing more students to have a go, giving them the belief that the fees are worth paying if it means that they have a chance of a better career and higher earnings stemming from being a good graduate. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.


The feeders to university are judged on their ‘academic’ performance which usually involves getting as many pupils into higher education as possible, wherever and whatever they study. This information is then ‘sold’ to prospective parents.  A recent survey by AAT of school leavers found that students feel they are being pushed down the university route, two thirds urged by their teachers and 60% by their parents.

So, What’s The Problem…..

… if Gavin Williamson is right and every student ends up with a first in 37 and a half years from now?

After all, you might well expect that could really happen as universities should only be making offers to undergrads who have the potential to achieve the best result at that university on that course, otherwise why would they make them an offer, right?

However, once everyone has that coveted prize, it has no value anymore and so the dishing out of good degrees becomes what’s called ‘a race to the bottom’.

Gameboys Everywhere

A knock on-effect is that, because the system is opaque and people are bamboozled, it is perfect for gaming.

The students game the system by choosing the A level and degree paths of least resistance, the easiest opposition, aspiring for the certificate which unlocks employment rather than challenging themselves; which is better for their future at work?

An old school friend of mine, who is now a Professor of Astrophysics in the States, told me recently that he is always under pressure to give students good marks on his tests. He refuses to do that and so the average on his course is a B.

He blames the ‘substandard’ students, the university managers blame him, and the upshot is that student numbers are declining in Physics because they are seeking out more ‘productive’ options.

The pressure of paying fees  means that students constantly have to carry out subliminal cost-benefit analyses to assess whether taking on a mountain of debt is worth the marginally enhanced career prospects.

Associated with this stress is the epidemic of mental health problems, which is understated and underestimated. Universities have grown as businesses, but their counselling services and support for students have lagged behind…massively and disappointingly.

Their customers are very aware that the institutions desperately want to protect themselves against complaints and preserve the reputation at all costs, so they launch an endless stream of Extenuating Circumstances Forms to help bump up marks.

The schools tickbox their pupils down the university route to boost their marketing statistics.

And the parents watching on the sidelines meddle in the game. Their interference is often detrimental as their insecurities feed through into the anxiety of the students. Amidst self-righteous claims that they want only the best for their offspring, all they really want is bragging rights.

Often, they push them into condemned career choices where the world has changed since they were making their decisions.

Well, that’s my interpretation from conversations at the school gates anyway.

The universities themselves game through their techniques of algorithm upgrading and trying to attract as many students as possible, then keeping them captive at the institution as long as possible.

Just like Fergie disproved Alan Hansen’s legendary “you can’t win anything with kids” criticism, so the universities confirm that by cramming as many as possible onto hundreds of courses you can actually win something with kids…!

And then the referee, oh the referee (aka the Government), despite all the foul play, stays out of the way and lets the game flow.

Neil Wolstenholme, Chairman, Kloodle

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