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A relatively new addition to the British summer calendar, joining Royal Ascot and Wimbledon, is the public revelation of another year of hyper-inflation in university degree marking. It is a day of hand wringing. But how might the inflation be controlled eventually, or its consequences mitigated?

There is only long-term policy that might be viable – but it is widely ignored. This is for the government to initiate various national tests, each linked to different kinds of careers for which a degree is required. In some respects they would be similar to a variety of tests in the US (GRA, LSAT and so on) designed for entry into post-graduate education or professional training. In the British case they would have to be focussed more on analytic skills, rather than knowledge of specific subjects. They would also have to avoid one limitation of American models where intensive tutoring can ensure exceptionally high scores.

Well-conceived tests could be of value to employers. They could also restrict, though not eliminate, the role increasingly played by someone’s previous educational institution in the race for the best jobs.

The origins of hyperinflation

Until the 1990s about one quarter of all degrees were classed as 2.1 with about six per cent being firsts. Following university expansion in 1992, and freed from the earlier constraint of a rigorous external examiner system, some universities started to mark more ‘generously’. They believed this would assist their students in entry to graduate jobs. To protect their own students, others followed suit. Once universities were allowed to recruit as many students as they wished, grade inflation became hyper-inflation.

University finances now partly depended on maximizing enrolments. At least some applicants were sufficiently canny to realise that they might be advantaged in the labour market by attending a university that marked generously. This further fuelled inflationary pressures, especially in the present decade.

About one third of all degrees today are first class, with some universities awarding fewer than 10 per cent of their degrees below the 2.1 level. For anyone worried about social justice this raises at least two concerns. First, those who graduated years earlier can find themselves competing for jobs against more recent graduates possessing seemingly better qualifications, but who met a lower standard.

Another concern is that ultimately this inflation increases elitism in recruitment to graduate jobs. Class of degree now informs employers so little about the relative analytical and intellectual skills of many individuals, that shortlisting for a job or a traineeship is less reliable. Firms need another indicator, even a crude one, to improve their chances of recruiting only those with seemingly greater potential.

This is where institutional elitism comes in. On average, the more difficult it is for an applicant to enter any particular university, the greater the probability its graduates possess skills at the level required. Generally entry is most competitive for Oxbridge and other universities ranked in the top half of the Russell Group. Consequently, their institutional prestige and reputation give their recent graduates a great advantage, given the paucity of information about the relative attainment of individual graduates.

Yet, alongside the media chorus about hyper-inflation, there is another public riff: that, for the best jobs, proportionately too many recruits come from elite universities – especially Oxbridge. Yet a consequence of the hyper-inflation is that, to prevent poor recruitment, firms have to rely still more on the Russell Group’s “top 10”. Can inflation be reversed? Probably not.

Certainly there can be no return to the older practice that ensured rough parity of academic standards between all British universities. Their priority then, to preserve their own university’s reputation among its peers, hinged on the role of external examiners for all their courses. These examiners were not God, but they were obeyed. The system’s collapse followed both the vast increase in student numbers and also university hierarchies becoming less worried about their reputation among other universities and more about their own finances. That past cannot be re-established.

Some academics argue that Britain’s system of classifying degrees should be abolished, with a graduate receiving merely the marks awarded for each completed course unit within their degree. This would parallel the American system, in which such marks permit a Grade Point Average to be calculated for each student. Yet, in the longer term, this does not eliminate inflation. There will remain an incentive to award marks of 80 when earlier 75s would have been appropriate, and in subsequent years the 80s will become 90s, and so on. Moreover, as research has demonstrated, comparability between grades awarded in different American universities is difficult. Consequently, many elite employers there tend to design their recruitment procedures so that applicants from elite universities have an easier track to the shortlisting stage for a job than other graduates.

The likely policy battle of the future in Britain will be between those who have no objection to the dominance of elite universities and those who seek means of limiting it. For the latter, post-graduation national tests are probably the only available option.

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