Russell Group accused of grade inflation

Pete Jefferys 18 October 2007

A new study has claimed that the number of first class degrees being awarded by top universities are soaring, prompting fresh accusations of grade inflation.

The findings of the research suggest that institutions within the selection of research-intensive universities know as the Russell Group are inflating the number of firsts and 2:1s awarded to their students. The report cites an increase of 2% a year in some subjects between 1995 and 2002.

The results were compiled by Mantz Yorke, a visiting professor of education at Lancaster University, in a new book.Yorke’s report pre-empts a government report this week which is expected to argue that the exam system within higher education is outdated and in need of extensive reform.

And the report is also expected to suggest that the number of firsts awarded at the top universities has risen by 4% in the last decade and that some subjects will reach 100% firsts and 2:1s within 15 years.

Wes Streeting, vice-president of the NUS, has stated that “the current degree classification system is not fit for purpose”.

Streeting continued, “We need a system that takes account of a student’s skills and ability and can be readily understood by institutions, graduates and employers alike.”

Traditionally, first class honours were only awarded to original work of a consistently exceptional standard. But these findings indicate that the system may now allow a greater scope for high grades within the Russell Group, lessening the impact of a top degree in the job market.

Professor Yorke’s book, Grading Student Achievement in Higher Education: Signals and Shortcomings, suggests that in engineering subjects the amount of top degrees awarded rose by around 2% a year between 1995 and 2002, whilst in modern languages the increase was 1.5%.

This is compared to the increase of less than one percentage point at non-Russell Group universities.

The book attempts to explain the increase improved standards and A-level results of applicants to Russell Group institutions. “It could be an exacerbation of the tall poppy syndrome”, Prof Yorke claims. “The brighter people all grow taller together.”

This explanation is favoured by Wendy Piatt, director of the Russell Group. “As Yorke himself points out, rising grades do not necessarily indicate grade inflation.

The increase in the percentage of Russell Group students gaining firsts and 2:1s correlates with a rise in the qualifications of entrants”.

“As Yorke’s research shows, the concentration of highly qualified, highly motivated students in Russell group universities and increasing competition for students due to the expansion of higher education…could also be a factor”.

A new study has claimed that the number of first class degrees being awarded by top universities are soaring, prompting fresh accusations of grade inflation.

The findings of the research suggest that institutions within the selection of research-intensive universities know as the Russell Group are inflating the number of firsts and 2:1s awarded to their students. The report cites an increase of 2% a year in some subjects between 1995 and 2002.

The results were compiled by Mantz Yorke, a visiting professor of education at Lancaster University, in a new book.Yorke’s report pre-empts a government report this week which is expected to argue that the exam system within higher education is outdated and in need of extensive reform.

And the report is also expected to suggest that the number of firsts awarded at the top universities has risen by 4% in the last decade and that some subjects will reach 100% firsts and 2:1s within 15 years.

Wes Streeting, vice-president of the NUS, has stated that “the current degree classification system is not fit for purpose”.

Streeting continued, “We need a system that takes account of a student’s skills and ability and can be readily understood by institutions, graduates and employers alike.”

Traditionally, first class honours were only awarded to original work of a consistently exceptional standard. But these findings indicate that the system may now allow a greater scope for high grades within the Russell Group, lessening the impact of a top degree in the job market.

Professor Yorke’s book, Grading Student Achievement in Higher Education: Signals and Shortcomings, suggests that in engineering subjects the amount of top degrees awarded rose by around 2% a year between 1995 and 2002, whilst in modern languages the increase was 1.5%.

This is compared to the increase of less than one percentage point at non-Russell Group universities.

The book attempts to explain the increase improved standards and A-level results of applicants to Russell Group institutions. “It could be an exacerbation of the tall poppy syndrome”, Prof Yorke claims. “The brighter people all grow taller together.”

This explanation is favoured by Wendy Piatt, director of the Russell Group. “As Yorke himself points out, rising grades do not necessarily indicate grade inflation.

The increase in the percentage of Russell Group students gaining firsts and 2:1s correlates with a rise in the qualifications of entrants”.

“As Yorke’s research shows, the concentration of highly qualified, highly motivated students in Russell group universities and increasing competition for students due to the expansion of higher education…could also be a factor”.

Pete Jefferys