The great grade garage sale is back in the news again! 1st class degrees easier to get than a 3rd.

There’s something tremendously reassuring about going to a beach, the predictable ebb and flow of the waves crashing on the shoreline, the rise and fall of the sun. Everything is orderly and happens just as it ought, with almost metronomic precision. Where that calculable cosiness starts to become problematic is in education where year after year the same issues are discussed, written about and outrage feigned.

It is once more the time of year where the eye-watering grade inflation at degree level is back in the news. Something I wrote about back in January this year and also in the previous July. So whilst shock and finger wagging seems to be the preferred response from interested parties it has become exceptionally clear to me that nothing has changed but moreover nothing is likely to. Why? For the simple reason that it’s good for business.

Universities are ever more relying on lazy marketing slogans and the quickest and easiest is to plaster their bumf with the number of graduates sauntering out the front gates with a 1st stuffed in their back pocket. It’s a little like the news today with Trump expecting a bunch of ‘hail fellow, well met’ for rescinding his own monstrous policy. You cannot pat yourself on the back for gaming a system that you created and expect people not to see through it.

Reform, a think tank has released their report on the issue and whilst wholly necessary contains pretty much the exact same figures as last year when other people were arguing we should be on guard against this.

So here are the basic stats again – the percentage of firsts awarded almost doubled between 1997 -2009 and from 2010 has risen by 26%. Over a quarter. Say it with me if it helps, ‘Over a quarter’. Although they are unable to enforce anything as universities are essentially large, powerful, independent businesses Reform has suggested national tests to set degree benchmarks meaning only the top 10% could be awarded firsts.

Damian Hinds (the new big cheese at the DfE) has also weighed in suggesting universities in this country run the risk of devaluing the degree. I’d say that ship sailed sometime ago, a view that is held by a number of employers who increasingly have found the dizzying array of 1st class graduates to choose from a little distasteful and eschewed them in favour of apprenticeships or training their own people in house.

The issue is the university is the awarding body and ultimately have the full say on what their students should get but if you employed the same logic in schools I suspect you might see a pretty aggressive upswing in A*s being awarded. Universities are reluctant to adopt a standardised approach citing a loss of independence. An idea I have some sympathy with but until they are prepared to use that independence responsibly maybe they should be on the naughty step,

I like universities. Really I do. They are fantastic, inspiring, inspirational, wonderful cathedrals of thought, activity and ambition. Which makes reading and then writing these nasty, brutish comments about them all the more galling but they really aren’t helping me out. Every day sees a new and embarrassing cavalcade of cynical devaluation of what should be the greatest authority on a student’s academic prowess and ability. A concrete signifier to any would be employer of what they are capable of. And yet. And yet, each day the dirty money grubbing little shits conspire to undermine their own value. They are literally hacking away at their own foundations. At a certain point the whole edifice will devour itself and what will be left is a white dwarf brimming with hubris.

For the second year in a row the University of Surrey came under particular scrutiny after handing them out like sweets on Halloween with 41% of students last year getting a 1st, more than double than five years ago. The University of East Anglia have almost trebled their great grade giveaway to 37%.

university degree grade inflation
Why not just give everyone a first and really cut down on all that expensive and pesky teaching?

In the Russell Group more than a quarter of students received a first-class degree, which given how many of them slumped in the rankings it’s hardly surprising, they’ve got to get them through the door. Firstly they reduce the tariff for getting in, now they are flinging firsts around like beads on Mardi Gras. You can see below the hysterical grade inflation that has gone on, can we all honestly believe that this is due to students organically en masse getting smarter and teaching standards raised to such a level that it’s easier to get a first than a 2:2?

1994: 7% of graduates awarded first-class degrees

2004: 11%

2014: 19%

2016: 24%

In a competitive market place as we have now, students may be more inclined to choose universities based on the likelihood of gaining a top class degree and frankly why wouldn’t they? But, as with the proliferation of degrees generally making it harder for students to differentiate themselves in the eyes of an employer so to will the grade inflation. If everyone has firsts then it becomes meaningless. The truly great candidates will no longer stand out. Whilst it is reductionist to talk about degrees purely as a means to access a career, for many it is, and, if the purpose of the education is to give one an edge, to show one’s academic rigour, to demonstrate commitment, capacity, intellect and so on, if everyone’s got the same award how the hell can an employer make an informed choice?  ( )

When you look at the stats below it’s obvious that many of these universities are simply jockeying for position given where they currently languish in the rankings. Others, should frankly know better.

Most shameless increases in first-class degrees in mainstream universities 2010-11 to 2015-16:

University of Surrey 3% to 41.2%

University of East Anglia 5% to 34%

University of Bradford 3% to 27.6%

University of Stirling 6% to 27.8%

University of Derby 4% to 25%

University of Dundee 3% to 34.8%

University of West London 6% to 27%

University of Wales Trinity Saint David 7.1% to 22.2%

Southampton Solent University 6% to 23.5%

Staffordshire University 2% to 27%

So there it is, draw your own conclusions but to my mind, it does every honest, hardworking, bright, student a disservice, it besmirches the idea and the institution of university and it’s a slap in the face for every graduate that’s gone before that earned their first on merit.

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