According to a recent media report, the UK government has just announced plans to introduce measures to address what it considers to be ‘so-called grade inflation’. This move has been precipitated by what the government, and many education observers have considered to be the questionable surge in the number first-class degrees awarded to university graduates, the numbers of which has risen from 18% of graduates in 2012/13 to 26% of graduates in 2017/18.
Based on student statistics, of the 2.32 million students attending higher education in 2016/17 (of which 442,346 were foreign students), around 603,000 graduated with first-class degrees. In comparison, of the 2.49 million students enrolled in higher education in 2012/13 (of which 435,230 were foreign students), around 532,000 achieved first-class degrees.
The question that needs to be answered in relation to this issue is has this surge in graduation numbers been caused by improvements in the higher educational standards or, as was recently reported, an increased prevalence for universities to ‘mark-up’ student grades. Or indeed, are there other factors that have contributed to the surge?
Potential reasons for the rise in first-class degrees
Superficially, based on the statistics presented above, it could be argued that surge has been precipitated by improved educational standards as the student numbers appear to have reduced by around 10% during the period. Equally, the increased access to technology and online resources could mean that students are able to access more research sources within the limited timescales that students have to complete the assignments within their course work. Additionally, it could also be argued that improvements in the teaching standards and quality. Of course, another potential reason could have resulted from the fact that the students are applying themselves better to their studies, and it is of course unreasonable not to suggest that many students work incredibly hard to gain a first-class degree.
However, notwithstanding these factors, previous concerns over graduation numbers have also been raised. Of these, the two most important that need consideration are the ‘marking-up’ of grades by universities, and the increase in the prevalence of ‘essay cheating’. In terms of the ‘marking-up’, the results into the university marking system published in 2013 found that there was evidence which found “the rules were often bent to boost numbers“. The prevalence of students ‘cheating’ has also been noted in the literature. This is confirmed in an article in The Guardian, which confirmed the increase in the number of reported cases of plagiarism. However, these numbers represent just the tip of a dangerous educational iceberg that threatens the very structure of higher education. Evidence confirms that increasingly a segment of the university student population are resorting to having their essays, dissertations and thesis written by other external academic writers and experts. Moreover, it is also known that some students, upon receiving feedback from their tutors, return the essay, together with the feedback, to the same writers for amendment.
Why is this surge happening?
In addressing this question, it is firstly important to state that this problem is not caused by the thousands of students who are working harder to achieve first-degrees. Indeed, the problem identified only serves to diminish the value of their degrees, which is totally unfair.
In terms of the ‘marking-up’ of grades, it is considered that this is occurring because the university managers are becoming more focused on a) improving the university rating in the national and international best university tables, b) a move to attract increased investment by business organisations, which can then be used to improve and expand the infrastructure and resources available in the university. In this respect, it can be argued that the ‘marking-up’ problem is being driven by financial rather than pure educational objectives.
Concerning the ‘cheating’ problem, this problem is increasing because of two main factors. The first is that with the increased numbers of students for whom individual tutors are responsible. This means that they have less time to devote to reviewing student submissions. Secondly, it could be equally argued that due to pressure from university managers, this encourages the tutors to mark the essay on the basis of its content, without taking into account whether, based on their knowledge of the individual student, whether this is the type of work that would have been expected from that student. For example, with foreign students, does the structure and content of an essay concur with the tutor’s knowledge of that students grasp of the English language and, if not, why not. Similarly, with the tutors knowledge of the level of progression of an English student’s educational competence, surely it is not that difficult to identify whether the student has completed the project without external assistance.
How should the problem be addressed?
In our view, simply introducing the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), to discourage lower standards, does not address the issue. In our opinion, there is a need to address the core factors to ensure the university grading system in relation to first-class standards, and any other grade for that matter, can be relied upon. Firstly, there is a need to change the culture of university management, and encourage them to focus on improving educational standards in preference to their financial objectives. Secondly, tutors should be encouraged to conduct a more stringent examination of the work that is submitted by student and allocated sufficient time to be able to do this, which should be based on the number of student they are required to tutor during the academic year.