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Protecting the value of qualifications: Universities unveil joint commitment

Universities unveil joint commitment on degree classifications – A new sector statement of intent will help protect the value of degrees.

Transparency, reliability and fairness in the awarding of degrees are at the heart of a joint commitment published today by the higher education sector.

As part of a UK-wide consultation on grade inflation, led by the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) with Universities UK (UUK), GuildHE and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), higher education institutions agreed to take collective action to protect the value of degree qualifications for the long term, to be more transparent and to tackle perceptions that degree courses are ‘dumbing down’.

The UK higher education sector has agreed that strong and decisive action is necessary to protect and demonstrate the value of university qualifications and in doing so ensure confidence from students, employers, and the wider public.

The consultation, launched late last year following initial recommendations from the UKSCQA, explored how these recommendations could be developed and rolled out across universities and other providers in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The result is a statement of intent, overwhelmingly supported by the sector, which outlines the shared commitment of universities to transparency, fairness and reliability in the way they award degrees. It provides a framework for action and will be in place for the 2019/20 academic year.

The statement of intent calls on providers to meet four specific commitments:

    1. Ensure assessments continue to stretch and challenge students
    2. Review and explain how final degree classifications are calculated
    3. Support and strengthen the external examiners system
    4. Review and publish data and analysis on students’ degree outcomes

A common degree classification framework, which will act as a reference point for providers by describing high-level attributes expected of a graduate to achieve a particular degree, is also in development. The descriptions formed part of this consultation and are now being refined ahead of publication by the UKSCQA in the summer.  

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

“Responses to the UKSCQA’s consultation have demonstrated that in the UK higher education providers of all types are leading the way in addressing the international challenge of ‘grade inflation’, and the committee welcomes the sector’s strong support for this work.

“The statement of intent sets out a clear framework for action which can work across the whole of the UK, and by taking this forward higher education providers can assure themselves and their students of transparency, reliability and fairness in the awarding of degrees.”

Professor Dame Janet Beer, President of Universities UK, said:

“The UK higher education sector has a world-leading reputation, so it is critical to protect the value of a university degree. Students deserve to have qualifications which they can take pride in, and employers and the wider public need to have confidence in the results students achieve.

“It’s heartening to see the commitment shown by universities to work both individually and collectively through this strongly-supported statement of intent. It is clear universities are taking this issue seriously – we must all now focus on exploring the ways in which we can adapt to meet these challenges.”

David Llewellyn, Chair of Guild HE, said:

“Students, employers and the wider public must be assured about the quality of UK higher education qualifications. The sector has therefore committed to work together to improve the transparency of the qualification awarding process and to ensure that qualifications properly and fairly represent the achievements of our students.

“The statement of intent will help universities reflect on their awarding practices so as to maintain and improve confidence in our qualifications and strengthen further our national and international reputation for academic excellence.  The higher education sector is increasingly diverse in nature, but we all share the need for the value of our qualifications to be protected, wherever and however our students are taught.  We therefore commend this statement to UK higher education providers and look forward to seeing it put into action in the coming months.”

Responding, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said:

“This is a welcome statement of intent which shows that universities recognise the need to ensure that degree standards are maintained, and can be trusted by students and employers alike. We have made clear that universities and other higher education providers need to tackle grade inflation.

“Our own research on this issue showed that there has been significant and unexplained grade inflation in recent years. The Office for Students has been clear that measured but decisive action is necessary to ensure that students, graduates and employers have confidence in the manner in which degrees are awarded. The statement contains a range of actions which universities can put in place for the 2019-2020 academic year. With work also underway on a common degree classification framework there are clear and positive signs that the sector as a whole intends to tackle this issue.”

Commenting on a UK-wide consultation on degree classification led by the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) with Universities UK (UUK), GuildHE and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, said:

“The leading reputation of UK universities is built on the twin pillars of excellent research and outstanding teaching. The degrees we award are well-regarded around the world and their value must be preserved.

“Russell Group universities take very seriously any questions surrounding the worth of UK qualifications and are committed to transparent and robust practices for awarding grades. 

“Today’s statement from UUK rightly demonstrates the sector’s wide commitment to this agenda. By publishing, reviewing and where necessary reforming their processes, all universities can help shore up public confidence in the integrity of UK higher education.

“Ultimately, we want to celebrate the efforts of hard-working graduates while reassuring students, parents and employers that success is always well-deserved.”  

The statement of intent was developed by UUK, GuildHE and QAA work on behalf of, and as members of, the UKSCQA. This was on behalf of the full UKSCQA and is signed by the representative groups and endorsed by the UKSCQA.

87% of all consultation responses – which were from providers, sector organisations, student unions and individuals, said they consider the statement of intent an effective approach to addressing current challenges for degree classification, wholly or in part.

The UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) provides sector-led oversight of the quality and standards arrangements that continue to be shared across the UK. It includes representation from all four UK higher education funding bodies/regulators as well as the sector and student representative bodies. Both publicly-funded and private higher education providers are represented on the committee, as well as further education colleges delivering higher education.

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