A piece by Rosemary Bennett, Education Editor, and Nicola Woolcock, Education Correspondent, in today’s Times. What’s the betting that rampant grade inflation has disproportionately advantaged female students over male students?
Three quarters of first-class degrees awarded by some universities are unexplained, an analysis shows. Even some elite universities belonging to the Russell Group cannot justify up to a third of their firsts, the student watchdog suggests.
The disclosure comes amid growing calls for universities to reveal how they convert degree marks into firsts, to restore credibility to degree classification after rampant degree inflation, and accusations that institutions are manipulating algorithms in their favour. The proportion of firsts has increased from 8 per cent 20 years ago to 27 per cent last summer.
The Office for Students (OfS) published figures this week which showed that some universities were awarding first-class degrees to more than half of graduates. The OfS looked at the A-level results of those obtaining first and upper second-class degrees in previous years.
They took into account factors such as gender, ethnicity and deprivation to predict what results should be this year. This suggested there should be little variation in the proportion of students attaining firsts and 2:1s between 2010-11 and 2016-17. The difference between predicted and actual results was what the OfS said were “unexplained” firsts.
University College Birmingham had the highest proportion of unexplained firsts, at 73 per cent, followed by the University of West London and Wolverhampton University, both with almost 69 per cent. The Royal Academy of Music gave firsts to 73 per cent of its graduates, and 68 per cent of those were deemed unexplained.
Some Russell Group institutions had increases in firsts that were fully explained, according to the OfS, including Bristol, Cambridge, Durham and Imperial College London, the last of which awarded firsts to more than two fifths of graduates in 2017. But others had high numbers that could not be explained by the prior performance of their students. Liverpool doubled the number of firsts it awarded in five years — and a third of these were deemed unexplained.
More than a fifth of all first-class degrees awarded by Birmingham University, King’s College London, Manchester and Nottingham universities were unexplained. At Queen Mary University of London almost two fifths of firsts were rated as unexplained.
A consultation by the academic standards watchdog for universities, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), is asking whether universities should reveal the methods they use to decide which students are awarded a first or a 2:1. Universities used to give firsts to those scoring more than 70 per cent, 2:1s to those with 60 per cent or above, and 2:2s to those with 50 per cent, but are increasingly switching to algorithms that give them the highest number of top grades.
Tom Richmond, a senior research fellow at Policy Exchange, who conducted research into the issue when at the think tank Reform, said that algorithms were a murky part of university life. “Very few students know that these algorithms even exist, let alone how they work. I am in no doubt that many people will be quite shocked to hear about widespread practices such as discounting, where the lowest marks achieved by a student across a number of different exams are simply excluded from their final tally as if they never happened,” he said.
“The opacity and confusion around algorithms is not acceptable for students or taxpayers. It is clear that some universities are using these algorithms inappropriately in order to improve students’ marks and overall grades, which is contributing to the rampant grade inflation.
“With each university designing and implementing its own algorithm without any checks or oversight, this outcome was entirely predictable.”
Half of universities at least have changed their algorithm in the past five years, according to research conducted by Reform. Universities justify the move on the grounds that rival institutions have done so, and their own students should not be disadvantaged with a lower proportion of firsts.
The QAA has suggested that universities publish and explain the processes they use to determine final degree classifications “in an accessible format, including why any practice differs from accepted norms”. That would mean the regulator could check they are sticking to their published methodology and not nudging up grades each year.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said universities had to tackle the problem themselves, with the Russell Group taking the lead. “The only way to tackle grade inflation is to do so collectively, with leadership from the most influential parts of the sector. Otherwise, policymakers will think it is an absolutely prime case for political intervention,” he said.
You can subscribe to The Times here.
If everyone who read this gave us just £3.00 – or even better, £3.00 or more, monthly – we could change the world. Click here to make a difference. Thanks.