Don’t blame good results on grade inflation. Blame the teaching

22 April 2014

7:58 AM

22 April 2014

7:58 AM

I was delighted to read that my university is apparently over-generous when it comes to awarding top degree classes.

Oxford is among 21 universities accused of grade inflation after a Higher Education Funding Council study found ‘significant unexplained variation’ in students’ likelihood of getting a First or Upper-Second.

Alongside fellow culprits including Exeter, Brunel, Warwick and Newcastle, Oxford hands out more good degrees than A-Level grades and the university’s entry standards would lead you to predict.


So am I on track to an effort-free First? Sadly not. No one would ever accuse a primary school of grade inflation if their cohort of socio-economically disadvantaged five-year-olds went on to receive top marks in their SATs – instead, we’d celebrate the evidently excellent teaching and bump the school to the top of value-added league tables.

The same is clearly true of universities. You can’t take a student whose father earns £40,000 a year and who got AAB at A-Level and assume they’ll get a 2:1 – it all depends on their potential, how hard they work and the quality of the teaching they receive.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of Buckingham University’s Centre for Education and Employment, is wrong to say the study shows that ‘some universities are a lot more generous than others’. The study could equally be interpreted to mean that you’ll get a better education at Oxford or Exeter than you will at Bath or Royal Holloway, where fewer top degrees were awarded than predicted.

It’s true that overall there almost certainly has been grade inflation – the proportion of students gaining First-Class degrees has tripled since the late 90s. But this inflation has taken place across the board, not at specific institutions. Maybe we should aim to see a reduction in the proportion of top grades, but we shouldn’t penalise our most successful universities for doing better by their students than expected.

Deterministic ideas about exam results are anathema when discussing schools, but acceptable when it comes to universities. Good teaching and hard work can get a disadvantaged child stellar GCSEs – the same principle is even more applicable for getting a good degree class.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Gwangi

    “Good teaching and hard work can get a disadvantaged child stellar GCSEs – the same principle is even more applicable for getting a good degree class.”
    Sorry, but I think you’ll find the teaching at schools and universities where students excel is often abysmally bad. But then the students have the brains to cope.
    At crappy places teaching matters more – former polys (VERY generous with marking in my experience) and mediocre comprehensive schools.
    But then teachers at those schools may well get good results in their students BUT are they good teachers? They teach to the test endlessly – they do not want children to read whole books when it’s better to spend time on the snippets and extracts GCSE English requires. Most attention goes on those borderline kids who would be a D but with constant repetitive teaching PLUS quasi-cheating on the coursework (which teachers adore because it boosts all marks) can scrape a C. So the teacher looks good as does the school. But has that child really been educated and is that teacher really ‘good’? Or are they just a factory worker churning out mediocre just-good-enough tat?
    Also, let’s not forget that many lefties and right-on metropolitan types who send their kids to state comprehensives make sure they send them to a good one (which almost always means one with many more white than black/brown faces) and also patch up the holes with private tutors (I used to be one and I taught kids with parents well-connected in New Labour circles). Also, kids brought up in an educated context could go to terrible schools and still get multiple A stars.

    • Matt Wilkins

      I would say that as level of education increases, teaching competence seems to go down. I went to a great primary school, a pretty good secondary school and a state college that rivalled many private 6th forms. I now attend a university which this year has topped at least one ranking in my chosen subject, and I would say that the quality of teaching has dropped dramatically over the course of that education.

      Although I lament this and often wonder what I’m paying £9k a year for (I’ve decided I am in fact paying for a piece of paper, despite what anyone may say to the contrary) I actually think it does a wonderful job of separating those who need their hands held and can’t do anything on their own from those who don’t (and make better employees/well rounded individuals).

      Now don’t get me wrong, if you asked anyone on my course, they would have no qualms telling you just how lazy and unmotivated I am. The thing is I have learnt how to use my resources well and get the best out of my experience without over exerting my effort.

      I probably attended about 50% of my lectures last year, because I couldn’t stand to be wasting my time somewhere where I was learning so little most of the time. According to the university this would absolutely reflect in my grades. Explain to me then how I managed to average over 80%?

      So I agree with your point that often the ‘best’ institutions are actually the worst at teaching, because they teach people how to deal with real world incompetence. The flip side is that though they produce a lot of very good alumni, there is a relatively large portion of people who don’t do so well, and therein lies the problem. The pressure to get everyone to do ‘well’. This means more and more institutions will try to get the majority of their students a 2:1 or first, and the easiest way to do that is to not worry about the quality of their best students, but to mollycoddle everyone and produce exceedingly mediocre results.

  • balance_and_reason

    Well you would expect this …the minute that you have political interference with the intake… then have to massage the output to prove the interference hasn’t lowered standards….

  • Tom Allalone

    At the University where I used to work, we were giving firsts to about 15% of our students and 2is to about 55 to 60%. It was more or less impossible to fail and we were directly advised never to fail foreign students. On one occasion the module director re-marked students’ papers to ensure that 70% of those who had taken the module got firsts. This was just before the NSS (National student survey) and was a blatant attempt to make the students feel happy before they filled in the forms. Three or four of us complained and were told not to rock the boat and to shut up.

    It was the same story with higher degrees, I read Ph.D. theses which would barely have got a 2i at BA level when I was at university. Even the students knew it was a joke but the management may well have persuaded themselves things were genuinely getting better by dint of constant repetition and self hypnosis

  • manonthebus

    Universities have to sell their courses. Does anyone actually fail a degree, these days? I mean fail rather than receive a third as a pat on the shoulder for turning up.

    • doctorseraphicus

      I think this is the unintended consequence of turning the students into customers: they have all coughed up umpteen thousands of pounds for a 2:1 and jolly well want to have one.

  • Gwangi

    Research has shown that an A grade at Maths A level now would have got an E grade 20 years ago (University of Hull research). Most students at universities used to get 2.2s.

    Then 2.1s with 5% or less getting a 1st (very rare). Now 70% get a 2.1 or a 1st and 15% get a 1st. A 2.2 is almost seen as a fail. Yet those who got 2.2s 20 years ago are superior in ability than most who get firsts now. And so we enter the surreal world of an education system shot to shystery.

    The same is true across the board – from secondary schools to universities. I myself know several prize idiots whose academic level would not have been high enough to get the 8 O levels I got. Yet they all have 2.1 of 1st class degrees plus Master’s degrees and in one case a PhD.

    Two questions arise: 1) Has there been massive grade inflation? Answer; YES! 2) Are exams and courses easier. This second point is more tricky and teachers and others with vested interests (i.e. parents) get all het up if one even asks the question. But in my opinion, yes, things have got a lot easier.
    I recently spoke to someone who left teaching ICT at university because it was so dumbed down. Hardly any real coding or computer science – in fact, none on the degree course he taught. Students from abroad who arrived were amazed at this.
    Admire the emperor’s clothes if you want to. But I know that the education system in the UK is utterly dumbed down and our universities are now basically just businesses that sell degrees – and that dupe students into coughing up for their pointless courses which employ pointless and mediocre academics with false promises of earning potential and career opportunity. It’s an enormous scam, and the sooner we grasp that fact, the better.

  • Ken

    It is odd that this coincides with a period where universities have complained about the quality of students arriving there. Commenting how they have to spend more time teaching the basic level of knowledge that students used to have 20 years previously when they arrived at university.

  • Tom Tom

    Sorry Carola, but Oxford is not what it used to be nor is its output. Even in better days English was noted for dishing out Firsts with a generosity unmatched in other faculties. The black hole of Seconds before they differentiated between 2:1 and 2:2 was a nightmare to avoid.

    Yet attending events at Oxford nowadays is to remark on how poorly educated many of its graduates are and to hear recruiters bemoan the lower quality. It is not comparable with what it used to be, the dons are worse and the students lack knowledge

  • Pootles

    I work at one of the universities you mention, and it is undoubtedly the case that the combined pressures of vastly increased student numbers that have not been matched by an increase in staffing levels, has had a dramatic effect on how students are taught and assessed. Thirty years ago when I graduated from Edinburgh University, my finals consisted of 13 three hour long examination papers, in addition to a 15,000 word dissertation. A colleague of mine has a daughter who will be graduating from Birmingham University this summer – her ‘finals’ consist of one dissertation. My son, who graduated from the LSE a few years ago took three papers for his ‘finals’. Do you really think a 2:1 from the mid-1980s represents the same thing as a 2:1 today?

    • Tom Tom

      3 papers ?!!!!!!

      • Pootles

        Yes. And he has …. a 2:1.

  • Kernow Castellan

    There is no point in trying to standardise 1sts vs 2:1s across universities. No sane employer would consider a 2:1 from Oxford to be the same as a 2:1 from Exeter.

    Where you go, and what you read there, are just as informative as the class of degree.

    • Gwangi

      Indeed – and a lot of very talented people got Thirds. From Rory McGrath to Malcolm Lowry to David Dimbleby.
      This obsessing about degree classes by grown-ups is pathetic. I sometimes meet 5o or 60 year olds who think their greatest achievement was getting a 2.1 in Greats at Catamite College, Cambridge, or whatever. what sad loser lives these men must have led. Is that what they’re going to have on their gravestone then? ‘Got a first class degree, did nothing, then died’? How very sad.

      • Kernow Castellan

        Exactly, and you remind me of another key point – your degree results only really matter for your first job. After that (e.g. for your second or subsequent job), it will be your employment track record that actually matters.

        Of course, a good degree helps you get a good first job, which then helps you get … and so on. But no-one cares about your degree after you’ve been out of university for about 5 years.

        • Gwangi

          Yes, though my good degree from a Russell Group uni never ever got me what I call a ‘good’ job. I later created one of those for myself by becoming self-employed.
          However, a degree was a passport to getting teaching jobs abroad and here in the UK (though I do know several people who got fake degree certs to get jobs abroad – much like foreigners do when they come to the UK, or they cheat in the home country’s exams).
          I just find it very sad how some people see their degree class at university and their time there and at school to be the highlight of their lives.

          • Tom Tom

            Yes it will be nice when teaching attracts better quality graduates

          • Ron Todd

            School the best years of your life, only because the rest is so bad.

      • grammarschoolman

        You need to name some talented people to justify your argument.

      • Tom Tom

        Dimbleby grew up in a household with 7 servants, joined Bullingdon and lived as son of a rich newspaper proprietor…..did he really need to goto Oxford and Perugia ?

  • HJ777

    There has been rampant grade inflation. More students now get first class degrees than the total number that went to university 30 years ago.

    • Tom Tom

      Same at Harvard and everywhere that marketisation holds sway

  • Moderator

    Looks like a picture of graduation form the US – do they not have irons there? Ede and Ravenscroft would not approve of the plastic smocks they seem to have in the picture.

    • Gwangi

      Maybe they were making a point about plagiarism. Most students plagiarise and cheat to do their essays and dissertations these days – didn’t you know?
      Quite apart from that they can constantly go back and forth to tutors to revise their mediocre work into 2.1 standard – that would have been called cheating 20 years ago. We did our essays ourselves at university. Because, see, we sort of considered ourselves to be adults – unlike the demanding infantilised retards graduating these days.

      • Chris Bond

        I think you will appreciate this.
        Your first reaction might be “be good on him” then if you have any intelligence or rational thinking abilities, it will swiftly turn to abject
        horror. Replace the dot with a (.) obviously.

        http://abclocal.go (dot) com/kgo/story?section=news/education&id=9507747