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Thursday, July 02, 2015

Universities must justify these results

If this article in yesterday's Guardian is not a cause for concern then I do not know what is. The paper reports the startling fact that more than 70% of graduates are now leaving university with a first or upper second class degree.

The Universities Minister says that 2:1s are now so common that Universities allow some students to “coast” and still get one. There has been a 300% increase in firsts since the 1990s whilst the 70% plus of graduates now leaving university with a first or 2:1, compares with 47% in the 90s. It has increased by 7% in the past five years alone. If that sort of imbalance was evident in A-Levels or GCSEs there would be a national outcry.

What makes it even more difficult to believe with these figures is that they sit within the context of a huge increase in the number of people going to University. Graduates are no longer as rare as they used to be. It now seems that first and upper second class degrees are far more common that in my day as well.

The real issue here of course is the way that Universities are funded. A huge part of the funding comes through the Research Assessment Exercise and Teaching Excellence Framework. That means that Universities are under immense pressure to do better than their rivals so as to maximise their income. Inevitably, this will lead to grade inflation.

It also means that pressure on individual lecturers is excessive. I would not mind betting that the other statistic that has increased in proportion to the rise in the number of higher degrees relates to more lecturers going on sick leave with stress.

Reputedly, the big increase in the number of students going into higher education has led to universities putting on literacy and numeracy courses for their new recruits, because a small number were not up to standard. I am now told that big employers are also putting independent tests in place for graduates to test their abilities as often this is the only way to ensure that they are getting somebody of a sufficiently high calibre.

This is not to denigrate students, the vast majority of whom are working hard to succeed and are of a high quality. They are the main victims of this practise. It does though raise big questions about the system itself, in particular whether young people are being properly advised as to the most appropriate route for them at key points in their life and whether the university system is serving them at all well in devaluing degrees by awarding so many of them at higher grades.
I do not necessarily disagree that there has been some grade inflation, but I am sure the Russell Group universities would point to the huge increase in average entry grades over the same period. Giving out more than half the degrees as 1sts and 2-1's has been the case ever since I started as a lecturer in 1983 however (when some students came into my course with DDD at A-level; Now the lowest is BBB)

However you are incorrect in saying that money is attached to any "Teaching Excellence Framework" which is a Tory idea still under discussion, nor was any money attached to a similar process that was discontinued in the 1990's. Money has been and is attached to research excellence, but never in any significant way to teaching excellence.

What we do have is league tables based on the National Student Survey. Since these data are collected after the 1st semester exams in the final year, and students like to get good results, there could be an effect!
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