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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.

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