The degree is losing its meaning
Universities desperate for students have caused rampant grade inflation.
Frank Furedi says it has to stop
The public is all too aware of the doubts many educators, civil
servants and business people have about the current value of A-levels.
But there is far less public discussion about the dramatic inflation
of grades in higher education that calls into question the way university
degrees are classified.
With about 60 per cent of undergraduates now being awarded either
a first or an upper second class degree, it is difficult to distinguish
the outstanding student from the very average. It was far easier
to evaluate the worth of a degree in the Eighties, when most students
gained a lower second, and only a fifth achieved a first or better.
A government-backed task force is looking into ways of reforming
the degree classification system so that it provides a more accurate
picture of a graduate's achievement. Sadly, the exercise is likely
to be a waste of time.
The question of how students are assessed has been discussed in
the higher education sector for many years. This is also the case
in the United States, where the introduction of new assessment procedures
has been accompanied by a rise in grade inflation even more pronounced
than in Britain.
Recently, Princeton, one of America's most prestigious universities,
announced that it would combat the problem by proposing a cap on
the number of A degrees that lecturers could award. According to
this proposal, only only! the top 35 per cent of students
in any course can receive an A-minus, an A or an A-plus.
The temptation to tinker with the degree classification system
appears to be irresistible on both sides of the Atlantic. But instead
of introducing a quota system here, the government task force is
expected to recommend scrapping degree classes and introducing "transcripts"
of the individual student's achievement.
However, the real problem has little to do with degree classification.
Grade inflation is the inexorable outcome of the prevailing imperative
of consumerism that dominates campus life. Universities face enormous
pressures to attract and retain more and more students. There was
a time when the majority of students had to compete hard to gain
a place at a university. Today, this relationship has been reversed
and, with the exception of a small minority of elite institutions,
it is the universities that are competing for bums on seats.
Matters are made worse by the fact that academics are under constant
pressure to increase the number of students taking their courses.
Any lecturer with a reputation for running a difficult course or
being a hard marker is unlikely to thrive in a consumerist-oriented
campus environment. And those who fail to fall in line with the
new culture face continuous exhortations from their managers to
"mark more progressively".
"Are you telling me that no one on your course is smart enough
to get a first?" was the question thrown at a colleague recently
in one of the elite Russell Group universities during a quality
assurance audit. Humanities academics have been told by such auditors
that if they cannot give exam marks in the high seventies and eighties
something unheard of 20 years ago then there must
be a problem with their teaching.
The pressure to increase and retain "customers" has led
to a culture that self-consciously flatters students. Assessment
and feedback are taken so seriously that many academics devote much
energy to ensuring students give them positive evaluations. Universities
transmit signals that encourage students to believe that an upper
second is there for the taking. Is it any surprise that, in a recent
survey of 1,000 undergraduates, an astonishing 86 per cent expected
to gain a "good" degree? Soon, campuses will be denuded
of average undergraduates.
If the Government abolishes degree classification for records of
students' achievement, it will simply recreate grade inflation in
a new, more individualised form. Institutions that are reluctant
to give low marks are unlikely to insert critical comments on a
student's transcript. They will be anodyne documents, like the letters
of reference that many employers no longer take seriously. And students
will continue to suffer from the mistaken belief that they are all
above the average.
Some of my colleagues believe that the devaluation of a university
degree is no big deal. All that happens is that more students feel
better because they gain a good degree. Unfortunately, this practice
exacts a high price.
Challenging courses are made to be more appealing to students.
Those who know that they can gain an upper second in their sleep
are unlikely to stretch themselves in the lecture room and, therefore,
have little incentive to work to realise their full potential. The
average student loses a chance to do a bit better, and the gifted
ones are discouraged from giving their best.
Instead of tinkering with the degree system, we ought to promote
practices that endow students' achievement with real meaning.
published in the Telegraph, 9 June 2004