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.