UK universities and other higher education providers are planning a range of changes to the degree classification system to tackle perceptions of grade inflation and ensure public confidence in the results students receive and the value of a degree.

A report by Universities UK (UUK), GuildHE and QAA, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) looked at the reasons behind the increase in the number of graduates receiving first and upper-second class degrees.

The report finds that a wide range of factors could be driving the increase in upper degrees, including additional investment in teaching and learning and heightened student motivation. However, there is a risk that a continued increase in the number of top degrees may undermine confidence in the value of a degree from a UK university, making the classification system less useful for employers and students.

Today, [28 Nov] the UKSCQA is launching a UK-wide consultation to gain feedback on how the recommendations in the report can be developed and implemented by the higher education sector in order to protect the value of qualifications over time.

Degree classification is a matter for individual institutions and degrees are awarded based on assessment by academics, internal and external moderation and sector-wide frameworks.

Universities are committed to ensuring that value of qualifications and maintaining public confidence in the results students receive. Therefore, the report recommends that universities should issue a sector-wide statement of intent, leading to actions to protect the value of qualifications over time.

This includes commitments such as:

  • Reviewing and publishing evidence on their degree outcomes at the institutional level – the skills and knowledge demonstrated by graduates at every grade with external assurance of the data –  in a statement. This should enable a university’s governing body to ensure the university is protecting the value of its qualifications
  • Agreeing common criteria, to be used by all universities, to describe the quality of work required for each degree classification
  • Publishing and explaining scoring systems and processes that universities follow to determine a student’s final degree classification in an accessible format, including why any practice differs from accepted norms

The report also notes the following points:

  • Degree classifications are featured explicitly in some university league tables. Where competition to attract students is high, universities have an incentive to perform well in league tables. As part of a consultation, universities will consider whether steps should be taken to reduce the potential for inflationary impacts of incentives in organisational performance linked to the number of upper degrees awarded in league tables
  • Universities should reconsider when and how rounded marks (where the raw mark is rounded to the nearest whole number, for example) can be used and whether the practice of ‘discounting’ modules – typically setting aside poor marks and considering performance across other modules – should continue
  • Universities should work with HESA to develop information and ways to make it easier for the public and universities to compare data on degree results

UK-wide consultation

The consultation, run by QAA on behalf of the UKSCQA, invites respondents to consider these recommendations in line with national regulatory contexts, how they might be taken forward, and what further action might need to be taken.

QAA will be hosting consultation workshops throughout January 2019. Responses should be made through the online portal by February 2019.

Professor Andrew Wathey, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Northumbria and Chair of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment, said:

“This report shows that there is a clear need for the higher education sector to take action to grip the issue of grade inflation, and to demonstrate its ability to maintain the value of a UK qualification. The UKSCQA welcomes feedback throughout the consultation period from all those who have an interest in ensuring that we can have confidence in the standard of a UK degree. These proposals will need meaningful engagement from the higher education sector as it considers how best to take them forward in national contexts while ensuring the overarching integrity of a UK-wide system.”

Professor Debra Humphris, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Brighton and Chair of UUK’s Student Policy Network, said:

We have some of the best teaching in the world and highly motivated students who are eager to learn, but we cannot ignore the legitimate concerns about grade inflation. It is essential that the public has full confidence in the value of a degree, and that degree classifications are meaningful for employers and students.

We want to see greater levels of transparency and consistency in academic standards. This report and the upcoming UK-wide consultation will help universities consider how they can best protect the value of qualifications over time.

This work has been undertaken by UUK, GuildHE and QAA on behalf of the UKSCQA.

Degree classification is a matter for individual institutions and degrees are awarded based on assessment by academics, internal and external moderation and sector-wide frameworks. Every university has a different subject mix, student body, faculties and departments and different course curricula and content which makes comparison difficult, however the consultation will help to commonly agree standards.

UKSCQA provides sector-led oversight of higher education quality assessment arrangements that continue to be shared across the UK. The committee has members drawn from regulated providers in England and Wales, publicly-funded universities and colleges in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and providers currently designated for student support by the Secretary of State in England.

Student interests are represented by both the National Union of Students and individual student members. Membership is also drawn from the four UK higher education funding/regulatory bodies, sector bodies and regulatory partners.

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