Degree standards doing what it says on the tin

So, is there a problem with standards and ‘grade inflation’? The answer depends, of course, on who you ask. Students and government have asked questions about the credibility of degree standards in an increasingly diverse HE system, but many in the sector express confidence in the current arrangements.

Perhaps the answer to the question is more nuanced. What are the facts? We know that between 2010-11 and 2013-14 there was an annual increase of around 1.5 per cent in the proportion of graduates with first and upper second class degrees. We also know that most of this increase can be explained by changes in student and course characteristics.

But we can’t explain all of the increase in this way. A recent study by the HEA found that approximately half of institutions have made changes in the past five years to the way that they calculate a final degree classification to ensure that their students are not disadvantaged compared to those in similar institutions.

This does prompt some raised eyebrows, and hints at a ‘classification arms race’ fuelled by the importance of institutional league table positions in an increasingly competitive sector.

What HEFCE will be doing

Failure to protect the standard of degrees runs the risk of damaging the reputation of UK HE. This is why the sector, with HEFCE support, will be taking forward work on degree standards as part of the development of the revised operating model for quality assessment. This work will cover four areas:

  • training for external examiners
  • approaches to the calibration of standards
  • a review of classification algorithms
  • the use of benchmarked data on degree classifications.

The first three areas of work will be led by Universities UK and GuildHE. HEFCE’s role is to provide funding and support for the sector to explore these issues for itself.

We want to help the sector to provide reassurance to students, the government and to other stakeholders that the standard of degrees awarded in the UK is robust.

We can achieve this by strengthening the existing arrangements so that the system does what it says on the tin. But we don’t want to direct the detail. This is co-regulation in practice.

Developing approaches to external examiner training

Our proposals to strengthen the external examining system through training are intended to ensure that examiners are better able to make reliable judgements about the standards set by institutions and the measurement of student achievement against them, such that standards are maintained over time and are reasonably comparable.

We’ve listened to the concerns that have been expressed about increased burden on examiners and institutions, and we are clear that any additional training must be implemented in a way that limits costs, and avoids increasing the load on examiners to the extent that they are no longer willing to undertake this important work.

Calibration of degree standards

We also think that it would be helpful to bring together examiners within a discipline to discuss shared views of the standards being applied to student work.

This represents an interesting new challenge: how should we take into account curriculum diversity in a sector where academic programmes may no longer sit easily within a single, bounded subject area, and where there will be a much more diverse pattern of applied, inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary provision?

We’re inviting the sector to test different approaches to calibration. We’re categorically not seeking to create common marking criteria, or a national assessment approach for all providers.

Rather, we want to establish a simple mechanism to bring together examiners from within a subject community (however best described) to compare their students’ work and to judge student achievement against the standards set in order to improve comparability and consistency.

And, while taking care to minimise burden and cost, we believe that the benefits accrued from a wider understanding of standards within a discipline will provide reassurance that degree standards are indeed reasonably comparable.

Shining a light on degree classification algorithms 

Training and opportunities to calibrate degree standards are at one end of the degree-outcome journey. But external examiners have no responsibility for the way that an institution takes the marks from the series of essays, practicals and exams undertaken during a degree course and turns these into a final degree classification.

The classification algorithms used to determine degree outcomes are rightly the responsibility of a degree awarding body, but students have told us that they would welcome greater transparency and consistency in this area.

Universities UK are setting up a working group to consider the approaches used to calculate overall classifications, taking into account a range of different and diverse pedagogic aims, with the aim of producing advice and guidance on a sensible range of algorithms.

Use of benchmarked data on degree classifications

We will explore the use of benchmarked data on degree classifications for individual providers and for the sector as a whole. We will share benchmarked data with individual providers and will expect to see this used as appropriate to inform their own review activities. 

And the end result….? 

This sector-led programme of work will provide better evidence of the reliability of degree standards and their reasonable comparability. The resulting benefits for the reputation of UK HE will produce wins for students, the sector, the government and the taxpayer.

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