Friday, November 15, 2019
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Degree inflation and the race to the bottom

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Are students graduating these days cleverer than they used to be? Twenty-five years ago only 8 per cent achieved a first-class degree. It is now 26 per cent. A further 49 per cent gain an upper second. Just 5 per cent fall into the third/pass category.

A pattern of significant ‘improvement’ is evident across most universities, but it is not evenly distributed. Data from the government’s new Teaching Excellence Framework showed, for example, that Wolverhampton University increased its percentage of firsts more than five times between 2007 and 2017 – from 5 per cent to 28 per cent.

Amongst our elite Russell Group of universities the ‘improvement’ was less dramatic but in some cases still significant. At the University of Liverpool over the same period, the percentage of firsts awarded more than doubled. The university told the Guardian that the increase was consequent on more Chinese students attending. 

Any suggestion that an element of grade inflation is at work is consistently rebuffed by universities. In 2014 the BBC reported research from the University of Lancaster which concluded that ‘improvements in degree grades were in line with the rising quality of the intake, as shown by A-level grades’.

Of course! How simple and how obvious! The A-Level pass rate [A-E] rose from 68.2 per cent in 1982 to 97.6 per cent this year. For the top grade the ‘improvement’ was even more dramatic – from 8.9 per cent to 26.4 per cent. Small wonder, is the logic, that so many more first-class degrees are being awarded.

And how do we explain the great improvement in A-Level grades even though there are there are now around 25 per cent more entries compared with the early 1980s? Again, the explanation offered by the educational establishment, the Blob, is rational and coherent. The improvement in A-Level results is all down to the improvement in GCSE results! Need one go further with this disingenuous logic?

Nor is there an escape! As Education Secretary, Michael Gove thought he would be able to solve the problem of grade inflation by making GCSE and A-Level exams more rigorous. He was mistaken. All that has been necessary to maintain the grade inflation and the dumbing down is to lower the grade boundaries. So-called ‘tougher’ exams this year brought an even higher proportion of top grades at A-Level and of ‘pass grades’ at GCSE.

In financial terms, this is the equivalent of devaluing the currency through printing money. Think of Weimar Germany, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or today’s Venezuela. A bank note without value is a pathway to economic ruin. An educational qualification without value brings its own form of educational ruination.

Confidence in the system is already beginning to erode. At school level, the government has long been happy to connive at the grade inflation. It makes ministers look good, after all. Universities, though, are earners of foreign currency. Once confidence in the value and the integrity of higher education in the UK is undermined there will be a haemorrhaging of high-fee-paying foreign students.

The government has, belatedly, decided to do some tinkering. The universities minister, Sam Gyimah, announced two days ago that future ranking of universities will take into account a ‘responsible approach’ to grade inflation.

This is not enough. A great deal more needs to be done. The starting point should be the building blocks of grade inflation at GCSE and A-Level. We need to stop fooling ourselves that undergraduates are cleverer these days and that gaining a worthless degree is in their best interests.

The time has also surely arrived for us to convert half of universities into vocational and technical training colleges. This was, indeed, their more useful and worthwhile former status. The race to the bottom has to stop.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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