A degree of uncertainty: an investigation into grade inflation in universities

In the mid-1990s there was no detectable grade inflation, with 7 per cent of students awarded a First. Over the last two decades the upward trend has been unrelenting. From 1997 to 2009 the proportion of Firsts almost doubled from 7 to 13 per cent, and in seven years since 2010 it doubled again from 13 to 26 per cent.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that ‘degree algorithms’ are contributing to grade inflation. Research has also identified serious concerns about how ‘borderline’ cases are treated, where a student’s overall mark is close to the boundary of a better degree classification. In addition, pressure being placed on academics to lower their standards is also strongly implicated.

Reform supports the principle of autonomy for education providers, but this does not mean the absence of accountability. Students have no way of directly comparing the standard of degree courses at different institutions and taxpayers have no way of knowing when and where universities are delivering high-quality provision or value for money.

This report outlines a new system for awarding degrees that delivers a greater role for professional bodies and other similar organisations. The new assessment model will end grade inflation as well as produce consistency and comparability in degree standards through the introduction of a single national assessment for each degree course. The proposals in this report offer a more appropriate balance of autonomy and accountability for HE providers while also allowing students, parents and employers to make more informed decisions.

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