From education to employment

A return to pre-pandemic ‘upper’ degree awarding promised by universities in England

Michelle Donelan - Education Secretary

Universities in England have committed to reversing pandemic grade inflation in first and 2.1 degrees.

In a first of its kind statement Universities UK (UUK) and GuildHE members have committed to return to pre-pandemic levels of ‘upper’ degree classification by 2023.

Measures to ensure students were not unfairly disadvantaged during the unique circumstances of the pandemic contributed to increases in the proportion of first and 2.1 undergraduate degree awards.

The statement recognises that grade inflation which cannot be explained by the developments in teaching and learning that combined with students’ hard work to improve results in the prior decade, risk undermining student, employer and public confidence in the system.

Universities will take the pre-pandemic year of 2019 as a benchmark for the commitment, when proactive action by universities to protect the value of degrees was leading to a levelling-off in the percentage of students achieving upper degree awards.

By the end of 2022, members of UUK and GuildHE in England will publish degree outcome statements, setting out actions to return to pre-pandemic levels of classification. The outcome statements, which will also include a review of progress against actions previously committed to, will be published on the UUK website with links to each institution’s statement as an effective list of signatories. UUK and GuildHE will evaluate and update on progress in early 2023.

Universities will also report progress to their governing bodies.

Professor Steve West CBE, President of Universities UK and Vice Chancellor of UWE Bristol, said:

“The UK’s universities have a global reputation for excellence and we must keep confidence in the value of our degrees high.

“The pandemic brought uniquely challenging circumstances and students who have graduated over the last three years should feel proud of, and confident in, the qualifications they worked hard to achieve.

“As we emerge and look to the future, we have an opportunity to take meaningful action and strengthen our commitment to fair, transparent and reliable degree classification.

“This is vital to ensure that grades remain meaningful to the public, employers and students themselves, for the long term.”

Anthony McClaran, Chair of GuildHE and Vice Chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham,  said:

“Higher education institutions are strongly committed to maintaining robust academic standards.

“During the pandemic we have rightly recognised the disruption that students have faced and supported students’ achievement to be recognised as flexibly as possible. As we emerge from the pandemic it is time to redouble our focus on protecting academic standards and take strong action to ensure we maintain the wider confidence and trust in the system.”

Higher and Further Education Minister Michelle Donelan said:

“I’m delighted to have worked with Universities UK and GuildHE on this landmark statement – the first time ever that universities have made a commitment of this nature.

“Just as the Government is restoring pre-pandemic grading at GCSE and A-Level by 2023, today’s statement will ensure that universities are also eliminating the grade inflation that occurred over the pandemic, and on the same timetable. Together, we are taking action to restore high standards across our education system.

“Hardworking students deserve to know that earning a first or upper second really counts and that it carries weight with employers – who in turn should be able to trust in the high value and rigorous assessment of university courses.”

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