Over the past few years, there has been an increasing debate over two key issues that are raising questions about the quality of diploma and university education in the UK. The first are of debate has been focused on the increasing numbers of university students who are failing to finish degree courses, and the second is related to the accusation that university grades are being inflated. However, it is interesting to note that despite the apparent dichotomy between the issues in question, there is an interesting comparative to be drawn.
Failure to finish degree courses
According to a recent Higher Education Statistics Agency report quoted in Daily Mail, approaching 22% of first year university students failed to complete their degree course “during the 2010/12 academic year”. While some failures were the result of students transferring to different courses, a large number of students were found to be dropping out of university completely and, more importantly, there has been an appreciable rise in those failing their exams. What is equally concerning is that a significant and increasing percentage of these failures were occurring among the student population from “disadvantaged areas” despite the government having invested a £1 billion specifically to address this issue.
One could argue from the outcome of this report that there still exists a level of inequality of support and guidance linked to student demographics, which needs to be addressed if the aims of ‘higher education for all’ are to be achieved. However, what is interesting about this equality issue is that it could be partially related to the second area of debate, namely the perceived problem of unethical grade inflation.
Unethical grade inflation
Since the publication of a whistleblower warning on degrees by the BBC in 2008, there has been an increasing debate concerning the increase in higher grade performance of university students. Although the university representatives have suggested that the percentage increase in higher grades is the result of better prepared students and improved A-level degrees, this is being disputed by an increasing number of academics, including university tutors.
The proponents of the grade inflation argument suggest that this is being caused a number of factors. Among these is the suggestion that due to increasing pressures to improve their standing in league tables, university graduation standards are being relaxed and tutors are also being pressured to improve the number of higher grades awarded to students to help achieve this objective.
The whistleblower report suggested that this latter issue was particularly prevalent in relation to overseas students, whose financial contribution to universities is significantly higher than was the case with domestic students. The points raised in this respect was that not only were grades being granted to students who had little command of the English language but also that a number of overseas students were able to achieve higher grades because they had the financial ability to ‘buy’ the work they needed to submit for their degree courses.
Discussion and conclusion
What is interesting about the two debates described is that they both indicate that a level of inequality of student opportunity apparent in the UK university education sector. The percentage of degree course failures and higher grade failures is deemed to be apparently much less among the student population from affluent areas and those students, particularly from overseas, make a higher financial contribution to universities. This outcome suggests by inference that the wealthier student population are able to access higher levels of support and guidance to improve their work, from whatever source, than are their disadvantaged counterparts. Despite the financial attraction to be gained from supporting affluent and overseas student is naturally attractive to university managers in the UK, clearly it is essential that measures need to be introduced to rectify what could be described as discrimination, whether intentional or not.