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Grade inflation is “ripping through the English higher education system” giving a dangerous impression of slipping standards and undermining its reputation, Jo Johnson, the higher education minister, has warned, giving vice chancellors a year to tackle the problem.
Speaking at Universities UK’s annual conference, he announced new measures to detect and monitor grade inflation, but said the sector itself had a clear responsibility “to take ownership of this issue and for driving forward developments to ensure that the interests of their students are, and remain well protected.”
The minister told vice chancellors they must “take swift action” to define and agree sector recognised standards for all degree classifications. “My challenge to the sector is to start that work now and to reach sector wide agreement over the next 12 months.”
He unveiled proposals to ask the Office for Students (OfS) to analyse and routinely publish annual data on the number of degrees awarded at different classifications: both at sector and university level. “The OfS will challenge providers to explain data that suggests that students’ degree classifications are being inflated,” he added.
In addition, a new degree inflation metric will be introduced into the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) that will recognise those universities that are genuinely tackling it and hold to account those which are not, he told the conference at Brunel University in London.
The Minister said he had raised the issue two years ago and was disappointed that the sector appeared to have made such little progress. Students need their degrees to be a currency that carries prestige and holds its value and business needs to be able to identify the best applicants, he said.
The new measures would be a counterbalance to the incentives to grade inflation from league tables that give points for the proportion of good degrees awarded, he said. In the last five years, since 2011-12, HESA figures show the proportion of students awarded first class degrees has gone up by more than 40 percent, from 17 per cent to almost a quarter. Over the same period the proportion of students graduating with a first or 2:1 has rose from two thirds to three quarters.
Five institutions have seen the proportion of top honours rise by at least 20 percentage points over the last five years and 40 have gone up by at least 10 percentage points. Just seven institutions had lowered the proportion of firsts, he said.
Vice-chancellors later suggested that part of the improvement was due to students working harder to get good degrees in response to the rising cost of courses.
Professor Peter Slee, Vice-Chancellor of Leeds Beckett University, said teaching had improved across the sector while information technology was making it easier for students to research and access information. “Students are working harder to be able to pay off their debts and that’s why we see student unions closing down bars,” he added.
Professor Mark Smith, Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University, said the minister’s remarks on degree inflation were of wider significance. “He is challenging the sector to agree national standards for degree classification within a year. This potentially gives a more interventionist direction of travel for the OfS as a regulator and that has implications for institutional autonomy.”
The Minister also told vice-chancellors of plans to make compliance with consumer law a condition of registration for public funds and said consultation would be launched shortly on a new fee cap for accelerated two year degrees to encourage institutions to offer more of them.
He repeated his criticism of the high salaries being earned by vice-chancellors saying universities were generally still charities. They should not benchmark their salaries on private sector businesses. “No FTSE-350 business enjoys the certainty that the higher education system benefits from in knowing that it has an uncapped flow of new customers coming to it each and every year, bearing £9,000 vouchers from the government,” he told them.
The new OfS condition of registration will require governing bodies to publish the number of staff paid more than £100,000 a year and provide a clear justification of the salaries of those paid more than £150,000. If universities fail to provide the information the OfS could use its powers, including cash penalties.
The Minister confirmed the Government’s support for the present tuition fee regime, saying it was keeping it under review to make sure it was fair but not considering any major changes. “Make no mistake: if fees were abolished, we would soon see the reintroduction of student number controls….. and the poorest and most disadvantaged would miss out,” he said.
On the next phase of the TEF, he said the principal changes proposed were included in a policy paper and included halving the weightings of the National Student Survey metric and adapting the assessment procedure for universities with large numbers of part-time students. As well as the new grade inflation metric, there will be another to take account of labour market outcomes based on LEO datasets.
Professor Janet Beer, the new President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, said the sector must do more to engage and to explain the role of universities and “fight back against negative and inaccurate commentary”, if it is to win back the public’s trust. The tuition fee system was “not broken” but needed to be better understood. UUK wanted to work with government to consider targeted maintenance grants for those most in need of support. The government should also consider reduced interest rates for low and middle-income earners, she added.
The process of the Year 2 TEF operated in a fair and transparent way and the Government has no plans to change the overall structure and methodology for future exercises, according to the Department for Education’s policy paper published on 7 September 2017 Teaching Excellence Framework: Lessons Learned.
However, the review of its practical operations has highlighted areas for improvement and refinement. A full lessons learned report and TEF specification will be published later in the month. The changes will be implemented in the subject pilots that are taking place during 2017/18 and 2018/19.
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