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Upgrading our Degrees, Downgrading our Prospects

Grade Inflation, League Tables & the ‘Miraculous Mirage’ of University Performance

If I can persuade you — momentarily — to cast this paper aside, I invite you to take in the surrounding atmosphere. Given the rather modest square mileage of this university town, I’ll hazard a guess that, looking around, you identify several individuals of similar age and (judging by the state of their jeans) similar student lifestyle.

What may be harder to appreciate is the sheer brainpower that currently surrounds you. Quite frankly, I’m surprised Eduroam is still functioning, given the volume of fibre-optic brainwaves circulating in the atmosphere. It’s one of the town’s great mysteries that, amongst all this white noise, the seagulls remain capable of flight.

I mean, the evidence speaks for itself, no? While those insolent 90s chicks were scraping Firsts at a mere rate of 7%, us Generation Zs are rolling them out; almost 38% of degrees were awarded a ‘First’ in the year 2020-21, with an impressive 84% of graduates bagging a First or Upper-Second degree. Beyoncé’s hips don’t lie and neither does the data: you are sitting in the company of a Genius Generation.

Or are you? As I cast my hungover gaze across the library, I find it hard to believe that the hordes of screens depicting WhatsApp conversations, ASOS baskets, and YouTube videos are masking the machinations of hidden masterminds in our midst. Granted, there are also a fair few keyboard-tappers who, come summer, look set to contest the ranks of University Challenge. Yet the fact is, even my bleary eyes reveal the naked truth before us: the unprecedented success of UK universities is no miracle; it’s a mirage.

According to the EDSK Think Tank, we are living in an age of “rampant and unexplained” grade inflation. Worryingly — and counter to what many government ministers would have us believe — the issue cannot be minimised as a product of the pandemic. Yes, the introduction of ‘no-detriment’ measures was a blow, but they impacted an already spiralling system. As early as 2019, one university Vice-Chancellor forecasted that 100% of students would secure a First by 2061.

On the one hand, the issue reflects an increasingly exam-oriented conception of education, in which grade attainment has eclipsed a more holistic approach to university teaching. Critics cite the ready availability of broadly repetitive past papers, as well as the blind spotting of notoriously tricky subjects, to be at least partly culpable for students’ unexplained ‘successes’. The University of Sheffield, faced by an onslaught of backlash when a large proportion of students ‘underperformed’ in 2018, was forced to “apologise unreservedly”. The marks were duly ‘uplifted’, the lowest performing students receiving grade increases of up to 40%. Equally, Queen Mary’s issued a quota for 60% 2:1 attainment in 2018. Clearly, student aspirations are as inflated as the grading system itself.

Which leads us to the real issue at hand here: the financing of modern university education. Ever since the coalition government upped our university fees, the institutions have had to cater for a new market: the students themselves. And, at the tender age of late teenagerhood, it comes as no surprise that league tables are consolidated with an almost sacred enthusiasm. Yet their pre-eminent metrics — grade performance and employment prospects — have perpetuated one of the great paradoxes of higher education, namely that a narrative of mounting achievement belies sharply diminishing standards. It’s easy to see why: as grades were raised to secure high rankings, employers received a growing number of 2:1 candidates. Correspondingly, institutions were forced to inflate their students’ achievements further if they were to be deemed ‘employable’.

Where the ‘miracle’ stops, however, is in the workplace itself. If the statistics were to be believed, a precocious generation of intellects would have displaced countless workplace veterans over the last decades. Not only is this not the case, but many graduates are struggling to secure employment at all. It should be a cause of major concern that, according to a recent PwC report, 1 in 7 major employers ignore degrees “completely”, with many favouring independent aptitude tests. Equally, some three quarters of graduate intakes require additional training upon arrival, including in basic literacy and numeracy skills. Hardly emblematic of a ‘first-class’ education.

Plainly, this cycle is detrimental to students, graduates and employers. The only ones who have escaped unscathed are our successive governments, who cite soaring attainment grades as evidence of growing social mobility or cutting-edge scholarship. Yet even they can’t escape for long. Should our graduate employment prospects remain this low, they will assume the burden of some 54% of the student loan book; a revision of the IFS forecast of just 30% in 2011.

So, casting my increasingly dubious academic credentials aside, I’m going to proffer a suggestion. And no, I don’t think the solution lies in the arbitrary slashing of grades. The reliance of universities on student-led funding has driven a tireless advertising campaign in recent decades. While this has opened the doors to historically-marginalised demographics, it has also attracted the educationally ambivalent or even sub-par. It is a universal principle that genuine value is established through scarcity. Perhaps, given the promising credentials of alternative school-leaver pathways, not least apprenticeships, the mounting student-loan deficit could be better invested elsewhere. No degree is better than a meaningless one, after all.

Illustration: Olivia Jones

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