University Degrees

7 July 2022

University Degrees

Tackling a corrupt system.

By Robert Kilconner

There are moments when you just want to weep. Try this statement from the representative bodies, Universities UK and Guild HE:

“In line with the national return to pre-pandemic grading in GCSEs and A-Levels by 2023, our members are committing to returning to their pre-pandemic levels of firsts and 2:1s awarded in their undergraduate degrees by 2023.”

That is a confession of failure. Faced with the difficulties of the pandemic, universities failed to maintain the level of their degrees, thus betraying students from other years who will have secured lower grades than equivalent pandemic students, the pandemic students themselves whose degrees will be regarded as suspect, and employers who lose one of the instruments which they need to discriminate between candidates. You might imagine, therefore, that the statement would come with something of an apology but no, look at the website and it glows with pride and self-satisfaction. As the chair of Guild HE put it:

“During the pandemic we have rightly recognised the disruption that students have faced and supported students’ achievement to be recognised as flexibly as possible. As we emerge from the pandemic it is time to redouble our focus on protecting academic standards and take strong action to ensure we maintain the wider confidence and trust in the system.”

It is clear from the numbers that this simply means that the institutions they represent took the weak and easy course of marking everybody up and are now going to try to mark them back down again. Do you trust them to do it? Of course not. Once you have that sort of weaknesses in the system it is hard to push it out again and, of course, now that student numbers drive fee income, the lesser universities have a good commercial reason to keep their marking soft.

Much of the leadership of the higher educational sector is fairly spineless anyway – look at the way they are pushed around by the students on safe space issues – so rather than hoping that they will discover new steel the answer to grade inflation must be to change the system so that it is forced out. That could be done if all higher education establishments awarded a degree according to the way in which the candidate’s results compare with those of his or her fellows so that the first 15% on each course were awarded a first, the next 35% were awarded a 2:1, the next 35% a 2:2 and the rest thirds. Then the fact that marking up one candidate meant pushing down another would keep the markers relatively honest.

It wouldn’t solve all recruitment issues, of course. A particular degree from one university might still be better than that from another but we already have that problem now and at least any glitches in the system would arise by accident and not as a result of corruption deriving from the commercial interests of the institutions concerned.

There are likely to be a series of ministerial reshuffles over the next few days and no doubt that will mean a new Minister for the universities. Here is one reform which could be brought in with no cost and would do a lot to maintain the reputation of the sector.

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