By Robyn Banks

Grade inflation is back in the headlines this week, with universities minister Sam Gyimah announcing that it will be incorporated into how universities are ranked under the Teaching Excellence Framework. There is statistical evidence to back up this policy change – according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of first class degrees being awarded has grown by 18% between 2012/13 and 2016/17. Whilst it is statistically true that grades are inflating at the university level, there are a number of issues with the current discourse around grade inflation that are not being properly addressed by HE decision makers.

Grade inflation is a natural symptom of the marketisation of higher education. Since the changes to HE funding in 2010, which made institutions almost entirely reliant on tuition fees for their income, universities are forced to advertise themselves as better than their ‘competitors’ to attract enough students. They are therefore incentivised to boost the number of firsts being handed out in order to encourage potential students to join. This link between fees and grades is easy to see for anyone with experience of UK HE post-2010 , but it is often ignored by both university bosses looking to defend their institutions from accusations of inflation and the ministers who level those accusations.

For anyone, especially the Universities minister, to tell these students they’ve got it easy is outrageously patronising

Why ignore a factor which should be so critical to this discourse? Because both Tory ministers, obliged to stand by their party’s failing education policy, and university management staff, who have acquiesced to the post-2010 system in almost every case, have vested reputational interests in keeping this link quiet. Neither group wants to admit that the policies they are creating and implementing are causing the problem that they’re complaining about. As long as their concerns for their reputations make them unable to talk about the link between the current fees model and grade inflation, they will continue to fail to deal with the issue. If they are legitimately concerned with the number of firsts being handed out, then they should look to decrease the ludicrously high levels of competition in the sector. If universities were less reliant on funding from students, the incentive to hand out firsts at such a high rate would be dispelled.

The complaint levelled at universities when grades are seen to be inflating is that higher-class degrees will lose their value by virtue of their proliferation. This may or may not be the case in fact, but either way the type of discourse currently surrounding grade inflation has the same effect. By constantly stating that it has become easier to get a first and, as such, that they’re worth less than they use to be, ministers and the media compound the issue. If this mantra is repeated enough, employer attitudes will shift, and they will actively start to value higher-class degrees less highly. Although for many students the overall goal of attending university isn’t just to get a degree that leads to a better quality job, this is certainly an important factor for many, and the discourse being pumped out by the government is quietly undermines these prospects. If we are to discuss changes in grading practice in a responsible manner, we must be wary of how the form of our discourse grants power to certain already-powerful interests over others.

The final issue I wish to highlight is how patronising grade inflation discourse is to the students who are affected by it. By constantly saying that their degree is worth less than someone else’s simply because of the date on which they earned it, commentators are essentially saying that they didn’t work hard enough, that they also got it easy. This claim is entirely demeaning, and rarely supported by any real look at the nature of the work modern students are doing. It is still incredibly hard to earn a first across an entire degree. Many students may never receive a first for any of their assignments across their entire course. Those who do receive a first overall will often have spent long hours engaging not only with their course material, but also their wider academic field. This isn’t an easy or even an accessible prospect for many students, who can be juggling many different things in their day to day lives. For anyone, especially the Universities minister, to tell these students they’ve got it easy is outrageously patronising, and a symptom of the privilege of the political classes.

Both the concept of grade inflation and the discourse surrounding it are problematic in many ways. It is a key symptom of the continued push towards the marketisation of higher education, but those with power in the sector seem quite happy to pretend to ignore this, reassert their privilege and shit on students’ achievements so they can score a few points with the media. If the government was genuinely concerned about grade inflation it would look at the root causes and change course on the marketisation of education, instead of making it another part of the already failing TEF. Sadly, if there is one thing we know about this government, they are always the last to admit they are at fault.

Featured image credit: Marco Verch

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