Universities in England have committed to reducing the proportion of top degrees awarded, after grade inflation jumped during the pandemic prompting fears that qualifications were losing value.
Universities UK and Guild HE, which represent higher education (HE) providers, on Tuesday promised that by next year its members would cut the proportion of first and 2:1 grades given to students to 2019 levels.
The move comes after the proportion of those gaining top marks more than doubled in the past decade, jumping sharply during the Covid pandemic prompting the HE regulator, the Office for Students, to crack down on inflated marking.
Grade levels 2:2 and lower are not addressed in the plan as the proportion of students who have achieved these has fallen in the past decade as the number with top marks rose.
During lockdown, “no detriment” measures — temporary arrangements to mitigate disruption to student attainment — were introduced by universities. These changes varied between institutions and included more lenient grading.
According to analysis by the OFS, 84 per cent of students achieved a first or upper second degree in the 2020-1 academic year, up from 67 per cent ten years before. In 2018-19, some 78.9 per cent of students achieved one of the top two grades.
Around 37.1 per cent of students were awarded first class degrees in the academic year 2020-2021, according to the data, more than twice the 15.7 per cent who received the top grades in 2010-11. By contrast, in 2018-19, before lockdown, the number of students achieving a first was 29.5 per cent.
Steve West, president of UUK, said students should feel “confident” in qualifications they have earned during the past two years, but added it was important to retain “confidence in the value” of degrees.
“We have an opportunity to take meaningful action and strengthen our commitment to fair, transparent and reliable degree classification,” he said. “This is vital to ensure that grades remain meaningful to the public, employers and students themselves, for the long term.”
Susan Lapworth, OFS interim chief executive, warned earlier this year that a “sustained increase” in grade inflation had become a “credibility issue” for universities and a “regulatory concern”.
Lapworth said the rise could result in a decade of grade inflation being “baked into the system” and a “credibility issue” for universities.
The National Union of Students said it was concerned about universities’ plans to address the problem. “If brought about through arbitrary capping and quotas, it could see students miss out on awards that they have rightfully earned,” it said, noting that the improvement in grades had been because of better teaching.
However, others said the commitment did not go far enough. Tom Richmond, head of the EDSK think-tank, said it was “not clear” why the target should stop at pre-pandemic levels.
Richmond argued that in the years before 2020 there was “rampant and unexplained grade inflation across the HE sector”. He added “rather than addressing this problem, the recent inflation will now be baked into the degree system forever”.
Michelle Donelan, minister for higher and further education, said she was “delighted” to work with universities on the “landmark” commitment.
“Just as the government is restoring pre-pandemic grading at GCSE and A-level by 2023, today’s statement will ensure that universities are also eliminating the grade inflation that occurred over the pandemic, and on the same timetable,” she said.