Grade inflation
Here's why first class degrees are not always cause for celebration. Source: Shutterstock

The skyrocketing number of students walking away with a first class degree is sparking concerns over grade inflation in the UK. But this will soon ricochet as the academic honour stands to lose its lustre while universities risk losing their credibility by awarding too many first class degrees.  

Reports suggest grade inflation is a worldwide trend.

Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that almost half of students who graduated from Lehigh University, Princeton University and the University of Southern California in 2018 did so with Latin honours. 

In 2016, Times Higher Education reported that GPAs at four-year colleges are rising at the rate of 0.1 points per decade and have been doing so for 30 years.  

In the UK, rankings compiled for The Sunday Times’s Good University Guide found that the number of top degrees handed out at some of Britain’s best universities has jumped by 50 percent over the past 20 years.

Recent research by The Times finds that all students will graduate from some universities with a first-class degree in just over a decade due to grade inflation. 

So, how did we get here, and what’s being done to protect the value of degrees? 

Grade inflation: The slippery slope

Grade inflation

Grade inflation is a higher education crisis where every student is above average. Source: Shutterstock

Last year, British think-tank Reform said the proportion of firsts awarded almost doubled between 1997-2009, and rose by 26 percent since 2010, reported the BBC.

According to their report:

  • More than 40 percent of students at the University of Surrey graduated with a first class degree in 2017.
  • Since 1995 the proportion of 2:1 degrees rose from 40 percent to 49 percent.
  • Seventy-five percent of students achieve one of the top two classifications, compared with 47 percent in the mid-1990s
  • In more than 50 universities, the proportion of first class degrees has doubled since 2010

Back in 2017, Professor of Education Alan Smithers of the University of Buckingham told the BBC that universities were “free to award as many firsts as they like” as they are not constrained like national exams, such as the GCSEs and A-Levels.

He added that universities “have every incentive to do so,” adding that students may choose universities on that basis.

According to The Times’ research, if the grade inflation continues at its present rate, every student in the UK is projected to achieve a first in 38 years’ time.

They note that by 2030, all students at the University of West London and University of Wales Trinity St David will get firsts. At St Mary’s, Twickenham all students will get firsts 14 years from now and in 15 years at Anglia Ruskin and Greenwich.

They also project that the 2:2 (lower second grade) is projected to “become extinct” around 2033, and that there will be no 2:2s at Trinity St David in 2022 and none at St Mary’s by 2023.

The Times used the four years of available data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and calculated the average year-on-year increase for those four years, then projected it into the future.  

A continuing trend

While universities have been criticised for grade inflation, skeptics say it is related to higher tuition fees and the need to fill places.

In the US, Tom Lindsay wrote on Forbes that: “In the early 1960s, 15 percent of all college grades nationwide were A’s. Today, that number has tripled – 45 percent of all grades are A’s. The most common grade awarded in college nationwide is an A.”

Since the 1960s, a Professor Stuart Rojstaczer determined that GPAs inflated at a rate of about 0.15 points per decade – a rate that, if continued, would yield by mid-century a world in which just about “everybody on campus will be getting all A’s.”

Rojstaczer argued that as a result of grade inflation, today’s college classes “suffer from high absenteeism and a low level of student participation”, adding that the absence of fair grading is a hindrance towards producing an educated public.

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