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Exploring grade inflation: protecting the value of HE qualifications in the UK

04 Apr 2019 | Dr Geoff Stoakes Ahead of an Advance HE, Universities UK, GuildHE and QAA joint conference on degree classification and external examining in May, Dr Geoff Stoakes, Special Adviser (Degree Standards) at Advance HE writes about the work being done to counter grade inflation.

An increase in the number of 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 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 qualifications awarded to students hold their value at the point of qualification and over time a condition of ongoing registration for English institutions. And, most recently, Education Secretary Damian Hinds has indicated a willingness 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 UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA) is currently overseeing two major initiatives designed to support UK higher education providers in ensuring the reliability of their degree standards.

Firstly, Universities UK (UUK) and GuildHE have analysed the degree classification algorithms in use across the sector and have recently published with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) two reports looking at the reasons behind the increase in graduates receiving first and upper-second class degrees, The Drivers of Degree Classifications and Degree Classification: transparent, consistent and fair academic standards.  

UKSCQA has also launched a consultation on a sector statement about how to protect the value of the honours degree qualifications over time. The response to the consultation is likely to be known in May 2019. 

Secondly, the Degree Standards: external examining project led by Advance HE has set out to enhance the quality of external examining, by developing a generic Professional Development Course for external examiners.

So far, over 1500 academics have taken the course. In addition, a range of higher education providers have ‘adopted’ the course for use in training their own staff. The project has also designed calibration exercises with a number of professional bodies to enable externals to align their subject-specific academic standards. 

How far these two projects overseen by the UKSCQA have the potential to facilitate the greater comparability of degree standards, and to reassure stakeholders, will be explored at ‘Protecting the value of HE qualifications in the UK’ on 22 May 2019.

Read more about the conference and book your place here

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