Grade inflation concerns rise as more first-class degrees awarded

Last year, the proportion of first-class degrees awarded across UK universities was 36%; ten years ago, this number stood at a mere 14%. This stark increase has led to concerns about an overall trend of ‘grade inflation’ at higher education institutions.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), the significant rise in the proportion of first-class degrees awarded in the 2019/20 academic year can be attributed to the “no detriment” policies implemented at many UK universities, in light of the pandemic’s adverse impact on university education. The ‘no detriment’ policies scaled student grades according to student performance of previous years to ensure that the overall mean marks were consistent. LSE did not institute no detriment policies last year, but instead offered a flexible assessment deferral policy

Data source: Higher Education Statistics Agency

The Office for Students had warned last year that such safety-net policies could “bake in further grade inflation” in the longer run. However, the rise in first-class degrees persisted in the 2020/21 year despite the withdrawal of no detriment policies at the majority of UK universities. The HESA suggests this is due to universities continuing with pandemic academic arrangements, such as open-book assessments, remote exam administration, and modified no detriment policies. Universities UK (UUK) further explained that some of these grade increases represent “genuine student improvements and better teaching methods and assessments”. However, universities that are unable to explain rises in grades have been asked to review their data and assessment policies. 

A spokesperson for UUK told MailOnline, “The numbers of first class and 2:1 degrees awarded this year are about level with last year, reflecting the changes universities made to respond to the exceptional challenges students faced during the pandemic. In some cases, this meant using new assessment methods, recognising students’ level of achievement before the pandemic, and accounting for disruption to their learning.”

Data provided by LSE also suggests rising grade inflation at the School. In 2021, the proportion of undergraduate students who received first-class honours degrees rose to 52.4% from 36.2% in 2019. 

Data source: LSE Media Relations

Mark distribution of modules suggests grade inflation is more pronounced in traditionally quantitative-leaning departments such as economics. For instance, in the 2016/17 academic year, 16.5% of students received a first in EC102, a course taken by 692 out of 4992 undergraduates that year; in 2021, the percentage tripled to 54.6%.

Although some interviewed students expressed concern to The Beaver about the impact of grade inflation on the value of their degrees, others were not worried about its implications for employment. Second-year student Cerys Chamberlain said, “Most employers have a cut off at 2:1 anyway so a first isn’t as important as grades were in high school. Also, if the uni is good then a degree is still worth a lot even if the value of a first has fallen.”

An LSE spokesperson has reassured The Beaver that despite the challenges of the pandemic, student achievement has continued to be “awarded appropriately”. The spokesperson cited a recent official analysis by the Office for Students that found that grade inflation at LSE has been relatively low compared to the rest of the sector. The analysis found that LSE fell within the lowest 25% of English universities for “unexplained changes” in outcomes at “upper” (first and upper-second) degree level, and in the lowest 10% of universities for “unexplained changes” in first-class degree outcomes.

The spokesperson said: “As we move into a post-Covid learning and assessment environment, the School will continue to analyse outcomes on courses and programmes to ensure students can feel confident in the reputation of their degree while being fairly rewarded for their learning.”

Grade inflation appears to be an increasing risk across the education sector as a whole, with teachers at private schools being recently accused of manipulating their A-levels results. The Times reported that in 2019, 16.1% of students were awarded A* for their A-levels; by 2021, that proportion was 39.5%. In response to the reports, the Labour Party has called for an urgent inquiry to investigate last year’s A-level results. 

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