The increase in the number of degree students gaining first and upper second class degrees, particularly in England, has been the subject of considerable ministerial concern and media speculation about putative grade inflation over the past few years.
The result has been a variety of government interventions to try to address the issue. A grade inflation metric has been introduced into the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework. The Office for Students has made ensuring that qualifications awarded to students hold their value at the point of qualification and over time a condition of ongoing registration for English institutions. In March 2019, the Education Secretary Damian Hinds threatened to fine institutions found to be responsible for ‘artificial grade inflation’, that is for increases in degree outcomes which cannot be explained by ‘grade improvement’.
The role of the external examiner has long been considered critical to the maintenance of academic standards. External examiners are employed to report (inter alia) on whether the standards set for awards at the employing institution are appropriate and whether ‘the academic standards and the achievements of students are comparable with those in other UK higher education institutions of which the external examiners have experience’. However, recent research has questioned whether the system is still fit for purpose, particularly in the light of the increasingly diverse and mass system of higher education and pressures for improved institutional performance arising from increased competition and from league tables.
This has led to calls to ‘consider further strengthening the external examining system’ resulting in the Degree Standards: external examining project led by Advance HE. This has set out to enhance the quality of external examining, by developing (with partnering HEIs) a generic Professional Development Course for external examiners. So far over 1600 academics have taken the course and thirty higher education providers have ‘adopted’ the course for use in training their own staff. The project has also designed - with a number of professional bodies - calibration exercises to enable externals to align their subject-specific academic standards.
Together the professional development and calibration exercises can help to ensure that the marks for students on similar programmes and of similar ability are ‘reasonably comparable’. Whilst this is of fundamental importance, external examining cannot alone offset the danger of grade inflation. For example, the external examiner has no control over what happens to the marks agreed at departmental level when they are placed into a classification algorithm usually determined at institutional level.
Consequently, Universities UK has recently explored the reasons for the increase in the number of graduates receiving first and upper-second-class degrees. The resulting report, The Drivers of degree classifications, attributes most of the increases to improvements in student ability and commitment and university spending on student and staff facilities and academic services. However, it also finds evidence of ‘unexplained’ increases in the proportion of upper degrees awarded, estimating this ‘unexplained’ component to be 10.97 percentage points in 2016/17 . Here changes in algorithms such as discounting of certain modules marks or the widening the ‘zones of consideration’, for example, for a first class award may have played their part. 
In this context, the publication last week of the ‘statement of intent to protect the value of UK degrees’ by sector representative groups is highly relevant.However, it does not commit providers to ‘publishing and explaining the design of the degree classification algorithm’ (the original UUK recommendation) just to ‘reviewing and explaining’; an element of transparency is still missing. Additionally, the original HEFCE brief for UUK to ‘recommend a sensible range of algorithms’ has not been delivered.
The statement does, however, encourage HEPs to support ‘opportunities for academics to work as external examiners, including professional development and subject calibration activities’. External examiners need adequate training and the role needs appropriate reward and recognition. Encouraging institutions to make use of Advance HE’s external examiner professional development course and subject-specific calibration activities (or equivalent) is also positive.
External examining is one of the last great ‘cottage industries’. It needs to be placed on a more professional footing if it is to be able to adequately benchmark the quality of all degree programmes and to help to counteract the ‘system-wide inflationary dynamic that has contributed to the increase in upper classifications over time’.
Geoff will be discussing this topic further in our upcoming Tweetchat at 8:00 PM on Wednesday 29 May. #AdvanceHE_Chat #LTHEChat
 Quality Assurance Agency (2011) UK Quality Code for Higher Education. Gloucester: QAA (Chapter B7)
 Higher Education Funding Council for England (2015) Review of external examining arrangements across the UK Bristol: HEFCE
 Higher Education Funding Council for England (2016) Revised Operating Model for Quality Assessment Bristol: HEFCE : 8
 Bachan, R (2018) The Drivers of degree classifications. London: Universities UK: 33
 Universities UK (2018) Degree Classification: transparent, consistent and fair academic standards London: UUK :45
 Universities UK (2018) Degree Classification: 4.
 Ibid.: 49
Find out more about the Degree Standards project
Find out more about the Degree Standards Conference 2021: Improving assessment literacy and maintaining academic standards on 18 June 2021