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.