Students will need to “consistently demonstrate” exceptional initiative and problem-solving skills to be awarded first-class honours in their undergraduate degrees, according to a new framework to be adopted by UK universities.
The framework is part of a new voluntary code on degree classifications, designed to address fears that universities have been guilty of inflating grades. The code also calls for universities to display detailed figures on the degree classes awarded, and explain any changes in the proportions awarded.
While students awarded first-class degrees will need “advanced knowledge” and “exceptional” performances, those awarded 2.1s will need to be “thorough” and those with a 2.2 will merely be “strong”. Those students who achieve a third will only “demonstrate” skills without adjectives.
University leaders said the effort would assure graduates and employers that the recent surge in the proportion of degrees awarded first-class and upper second-class (2.1) honours was justified, while still protecting institutional autonomy.
Prof Julia Buckingham, the vice-chancellor of Brunel University and president of the Universities UK group, said: “Universities are listening to concerns about grade inflation and these initiatives show our determination to ensuring transparency and consistency in the way degrees are awarded.”
Buckingham said the public statements would detail each university’s degree results as well as their criteria for achieving different grades, allowing them to explain increases “in the context of improvements in teaching and students’ performances”.
Earlier this year the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator in England, sounded the alarm after its figures showed the proportion of students awarded first-class degrees shooting up from 16% in 2010-11 to 29% by 2017-18. The watchdog’s analysis also found what it described as “unexplained” but statistically significant increases in the rate of first-class degrees awarded by almost all English universities.
Surrey University increased the proportion of first-class degrees awarded to undergraduates from 23% in 2010-11 to 50% in 2016-17, falling back to 45% last year after the controversy over grade inflation broke.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has been a stern critic of the increase in good degrees, accusing universities of having “entrenched” grade inflation, and claiming that when he graduated in 1997, “you could count the number of students on my course who got firsts on one hand”.
He attended the University of Bradford, where the rate of first-class degrees awarded nearly tripled in seven years, from 11% in 2010-11 to 31% in 2016-17.
Williamson said: “I am clear that universities must end grade inflation and I will be watching closely to see if these initiatives do help to tackle the issue. I expect the Office for Students to challenge institutions which continue to record unexplained rises in top degrees awarded.”
The new code drawn up by the UK standing committee for quality assessment would only be voluntary, with no penalties for universities that refuse to take part. But Buckingham said Universities UK would be encouraging its members in England to publish the degree outcomes statements on their websites.
David Kernohan, an analyst for the Wonkhe higher education thinktank, said the effort to boil down a complex set of algorithms and classifications into a brief text, as the code requires, was unrealistic.
He said: “If you are setting out such broadly applicable descriptions you are in danger of not adding anything tangible to the subject specific learning goals and outcomes that already exist.
“What exactly do these non-exhaustive generic descriptors actually add? The idea of consistency in measures of learning is attractive, if unlikely. A mention of a provider’s adherence to these descriptions in their degree outcomes statements seems to be the likely endpoint. And I’m not sure who benefits from that.”