Are degree awards inflating four times faster than GCSEs?

Earlier this week, under the headline “Universities fix results in ‘race for firsts‘”, the Telegraph reported on research by Prof John Thornes of Birmingham University suggesting that the rules according to which degree classifications are calculated were “often bent to boost numbers”.

In short, undergraduate students are now twice as likely to be awarded a first or an upper second than they were in 1997.

Interestingly, the odds of GCSE students achieving a top grade have only risen by about a quarter (from 54.4% to 69.4%) over the same period. From this, one could conclude that degree awards are inflating four times faster than GCSEs.

Here are some other alarming stats about ‘award inflation’:

  • In 1980, 13% of Cambridge Uni graduates were awarded a first; in 2010, the proportion was 23%;
  • In 1980, 3% of Warwick Uni graduates were awarded a first; in 2010, the proportion was 23%;
  • In 1980, 4% of Exeter Uni graduates were awarded a first; in 2010, the proportion was 19%;

In the UK, we’re all familiar with debates about grade inflation in pre-18 education. “They didn’t have dumbed-down exams like that in my day” is how some will respond to the graph below. For others, it’s simply evidence that teachers have got better at teaching and learners better at learning.

Naturally, the marketisation of HE puts pressure on universities to be more generous in their awards. “How many firsts were there last year?” parents ask at Open Days. League tables rank institutions on the proportions awarded.

A further problem is that universities have different ways of calculating degree classifications. I’ve attended (and chaired) dozens of Exam Boards, many as an External Examiner. Regulations differ, and grey areas can usually be found. Some Boards take performance across all years of study into account; others don’t. Some discount a student’s lowest score; others factor in ‘exit velocity’ for those who perform strongly in their final semester. Most have a system for identifying ‘borderline’ students; some even have a separate policy for ‘borderline borderlines’.

No academic wants to disadvantage their own students. It’s little wonder that awards creep higher each year.

Alternatives aren’t easy to find. University College London recently announced they would abandon traditional classifications for an American style “grade point average”. This is a far preferable solution than that proposed by Prof Alan Smithers of Buckingham University, who wants to introduce a “starred first” (to be followed, presumably, by a double-starred first, then a triple-starred first…).

So why does ‘award inflation’ receives less media attention than its naughty younger sister, ‘grade inflation’?

Cynics might suggest that if everyone does better in their GCSEs and A-levels, the established middle classes don’t like it because their educational edge is eroded. However, if everyone does better at university, this doesn’t matter so much (because by then most of the working classes have been filtered out the system anyway).

There’s a touch of conspiracy about that theory, but – whatever the explanation – I can guarantee that the next time you read about qualification inflation, the story is more likely to be about school children than university students.


Student Loans for Sale: killing confidence in the system?

A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian leaked a confidential, Whitehall-commissioned report, written by Rothschild investment bank and piss-takingly dubbed ‘Project Hero’.

‘Project Hero’ proposed redrawing the terms of student loans taken out over the past 15 years to make them more expensive for borrowers and therefore more attractive to potential purchasers.

Danny Alexander (Chief Secretary to the Treasury) later confirmed that the student loan book will indeed be privatised to raise £10bn, but offered no further details about the ‘sweeteners’ involved.

Among the first to respond was Martin Lewis, head of the Independent Student Finance Taskforce. Lewis has succeeded in explaining higher fees to the younger generation better than any politician or university, so it’s interesting that he went off-message and took a strong stand against the suggested fire-sale, tweeting:

“To hike past students loan interest [would] betray every democratic principle and kill confidence in loan system.”

Lewis’s point is a very good one. It’s an act of faith for anybody to attend university in the higher fees era. Trust in the loan system is vital. Any suspicion that graduates will be fleeced by the state is likely to have serious consequences, especially for the most debt-sensitive of young people.

Writing in The New Statesman, Alex Hern has been excellent at explaining the economic ramification of the sell-off, first describing the idea as “terrible financial management” and then noting that:

“Our government is twisting itself in contortions, discussing student loan debt as though it’s a pile of newspapers sat at the back of the treasury, which they mustn’t be “compulsive hoarders” of, in order to sell at a discount an asset which is significantly more valuable in public hands than private. It’s politically driven economic illiteracy.”

Finally, Tim Whitmarsh, a Professor of Ancient Literatures at Oxford University, makes important points about social justice:

“The situation is deeply troubling. Higher education is the primary driver of social mobility in the UK. Huge fees are already a deterrent to many, but at least when they came in we were promised a benevolent, progressive loans structure. The involvement of the private sector in student financing can only damage that. Private companies want profits, and profits have to come from somewhere.”

Professor Whitmarsh has set up an online petition against loans privatisation, which already has over one thousand signatures. It can be found here.

All three of the arguments above are very persuasive. Nothing will undo Lewis’s work in promoting the new system faster than potential university students losing confidence in those from whom they must borrow. Hern is also right to point out the mindless economic short-termism of the proposal. And Whitmarsh’s concerns about interfering with the ‘safety net’ of a relatively progressive clawback mechanism are entirely justified if participation rates, particularly among those from less well off backgrounds, aren’t to be damaged.

As Martin McQuillan says, this is a “trainwreck” of an idea.

For an overview of the counter-arguments to this position, see Andrew McGettigan’s patient summary of a sell-off’s ‘quick wins’. However, note that McGettigan’s conclusion – that selling the loan book “without consent or consultation and without a parliamentary vote” is not on – is entirely consistent with the views expressed above.

The terms of students’ participation ‘bet’ must always be honoured. If you back a winner at 3-1, you don’t expect the bookie to ‘retroactively’ cut your odds to 5-2.

You can’t change the price of a degree once the student has graduated.