You want a first with that fee?

With university degrees now organised like training schemes, no wonder the marks are going up.

Economic inflation may be steady at the moment, despite a slight increase last month, but grade inflation in UK universities is out of control. It seems that in the modern higher-education market all must have firsts (or at least high upper-seconds).

Sitting in on a graduation ceremony at an elite Russell Group university recently, I was surprised how many students had achieved an upper second (2.1) or a first-class degree. There were hardly any lower second (2.2) awards. I didn’t ask why this was the case at the time, but the answer could simply have been that the students were all pretty clever. Indeed, I have heard a Cambridge admissions tutor claim that students today are more intelligent and knowledgeable.

But grade inflation is not limited to the Russell Group universities. In 2012, two thirds of students received firsts or 2.1s compared with just a third of students in 1997. The Higher Education Statistics Agency returns show that 61,605 of students - 17 per cent - gained a first last summer compared with just 20,700 firsts in 1999.

It is no insult to students to say that they are not more intelligent or knowledgeable than students of previous generations. They are, as you might expect, much the same. What has changed, however, is the system that generates the awards.

To fee-paying, debt-ridden students, firsts are certainly flattering. But in reality, they serve less as a recognition of a student’s level of knowledge and understanding, and more as a receipt for the fees paid. There is no doubt that there is market-like pressure on universities which forces them to consider how many firsts and 2.1s they dish out. This concern trickles down through academic boards, programme committees and assessment boards, right down to the academic with a red pen or electronic marking sheet. Nothing need actually be said to the markers, then, and there is unlikely to any actual ‘fixing’ of results, but there is nonetheless a strong tendency towards ever-higher gradings.

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Many academics and writers blame the post-fees ‘marketisation’ of higher education for grade inflation. But this is displacement activity. In truth, many academics themselves need to shoulder the blame for the transformation of HE into a degree factory. They failed to oppose the changes that have been killing thinking in universities over the past 25 years. In that time, universities have become training rather than educational institutions. The restructuring of almost all degree programmes around ‘learning objectives’, complete with the associated ‘marking criteria’, has happened largely without protest. 

The effect has been deleterious. Education at the highest level has been transformed into little more than a training scheme. Unfortunately, many academics today do not see the difference between training and education, so it is worth stating clearly: education has no specifiable ‘objectives’; only skills-based training programmes have objectives. In co-operating with university managements and their drive to quantify higher education, academics have colluded in breaking down knowledge and understanding across every discipline and replacing it with telephone directories of learning objectives.

This makes sense, of course, to university managers anxious to cram as many fee-paying students through the university doors. Training courses are easy to follow and easy to pass. So where once students carried books around, now they are more often to be found weighed down with a course manual full of learning objectives. Consequently, students now write to meet these learning objectives and academics mark according to whether these objectives have been met. And hey presto, students gets what they paid for: a degree.

It is the changed nature of higher-education programmes that explains grade inflation, not the introduction of a ‘market’ into higher education. Students are getting the marks and grades they deserve - on their training programmes. Talk of ’marketisation’ merely allows academics to blame someone else for their own failure to defend higher education.

It isn’t just distinctive and original thinking that is killed by learning objectives, but knowledge and understanding, too. If academics recognised this they might then at least be able to get their students to write a good essay without reference to ‘learning objectives’, before marking it using their own judgement and expertise (and not just the learning-objectives marking criteria). Then, perhaps, knowledge and understanding could be brought back into universities.

Dennis Hayes is professor of education at the University of Derby and the editor (with Robin Wynyard) of The McDonaldization of Higher Education, Greenwood Press, 2002

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