More than 40 per cent of firsts last year were ‘unexplained’, finds UUK-commissioned report.

Most of the rising share of first-class degrees in the UK over the past decade is “unexplained” by factors such as improvements in student entry standards, and the tripling of English tuition fees in 2012 may be a reason instead, a key report on grade inflation has concluded.
According to the report, commissioned by Universities UK and written by an academic expert on grading trends, about 10 percentage points of the rise in firsts from 2008 to 2017 cannot be explained by changes like students starting universities with better grades or universities becoming more “efficient” at teaching.

With almost 24 per cent of all bachelor’s-level degrees resulting in a first last year, this means that more than 40 per cent of those degrees were “unexplained” by such factors, meaning that they could be the result of pure grade inflation – in which higher marks are awarded for work no better than submissions that would have received a lower score in the past.

This “unexplained” element in the share of firsts being awarded started to appear from the 2010-11 academic year and has been growing ever since, says the study by Ray Bachan, senior lecturer in economics at Brighton Business School.

It is larger at modern universities, according to the analysis, with 13 percentage points of the rise in firsts at post-92 institutions being unexplained, representing about half of all the first-class degrees awarded by such institutions last year. Meanwhile, Scottish universities – which do not charge tuition fees to students from Scotland or other European Union countries – have the lowest share of unexplained firsts with around a third in this category in 2016-17.

Dr Bachan’s findings feed into a wider report on grade inflation by UUK, GuildHE and the Quality Assurance Agency, which claims that “much of the upward trend in grades seen across the sector will have been legitimately influenced by enhancements in teaching and learning”. But it also admits the influence of other factors that could be “described as inflation”.

The organisations have launched a sector-wide consultation based on recommendations in the report, which include reviewing the structure of degree classifications, asking universities to publish algorithms used to determine final marks and looking at the influence of league tables on degree awards.
Read more : Simon Baker : Times Higher Education : 28 November 2018