A guest blog kindly contributed by Dennis Sherwood, who runs the Silver Bullet Machine consultancy.

Twelve pairs of eyes looked intently at the small, dapper, moustachioed figure at the head of the table.

“Your case is very like another I solved only recently,” he said. “Whilst a train was snowbound, a savage murder was committed. There were two possible explanations. Either the murderer had boarded the stationary train, violently stabbed the victim, and then escaped. Or…”

He paused, and made eye contact with each of the twelve people around the table. “Or… the twelve passengers on the train had colluded and conspired to carry out the murder together.”

“What’s the relevance of that to us?” asked the Vice-Chancellor of St Agatha’s.

“The similarity,” he continued, “is that your case also has two, very different explanations. Either the recent year-on-year increase in the awards of firsts and upper seconds is proof of how much better universities are becoming, how much brighter the students, and how much wiser the government’s education policies, or it is a manifestation of the brutal murder of standards. Clearly, it is the first explanation that most people wish to believe.”

“But what evidence is there for the alternative explanation?”

“Alas, mon ami, there is no smoking gun. No fingerprints. No video recording. But let me tell you a little story. A purely hypothetical story, of course…

…Let me ask you to imagine a meeting of the senior management team at Christie College. What do you hear? What are people talking about? Perhaps the Finance Officer is expressing concern about the worsening funding situation, and the need to save costs. Perhaps the Director of Admissions suggests that, instead of saving costs, more students should be admitted, so generating more income. And then the Director of Strategy reports a rumour that the nearby campus of St Jane’s was likely to be lowering their admission grades, as well as awarding rather more firsts and 2:1s than the previous year, both of which are likely to be attractive to students. The discussion heats up. We can’t allow St Jane’s to steal students who should be coming to us! We have to retaliate to maintain our student numbers, let alone increase them. But what can we do? Perhaps we should be more inclusive in our admissions? And we really have been very strict as regards degree awards – maybe we should ‘soften’ those too? We can’t soften them too much, of course, for that devalues the currency. But just a little…

Meanwhile, at St Jane’s a very similar discussion is taking place, about the rumours that…

You see what is happening. An ‘arms race’ in which universities and colleges are trying to outbid one another for students, and the funds that come with them. And one of the easiest ways in which this can be done is by making admission easier, and by offering greater rewards in terms of the likelihood of getting a first or a 2:1. Which, of course, keeps the students – and their parents – very happy. Everyone’s a winner.

Standards aren’t plummeting, and each successive year is only marginally ‘softer’ than the previous year. But over time, the effect becomes significant.

In all of this, no one institution is a villain. Rather, all are, let’s say, ‘inadvertently colluding’. The effect is systemic – just like Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’. This is not as explicit and dramatic as the direct collusion between the twelve passengers involved in the murder on the train, but it is a collective action none the less; a collective action resulting from each university’s individual actions in seeking, understandably, to maximise its own interests.

So there you have it. The number of first and 2:1s has been steadily increasing. Why so? Two explanations. Explanation 1 – better teaching, better students, and an oh-so-wise government. Explanation 2 – the systemic effect, driven by competition for students and the pressures of funding, resulting in the murder of standards. Which explanation is the more plausible?”

The room fell silent, and the Vice-Chancellors looked sullen.

“I follow your analysis,” said one, “and without of course admitting to your second explanation, may I ask – assuming, for the sake of argument, that this explanation might be valid – what can be done to arrest things?”

“There is but one solution,” he replied. “Since the effect is systemic, across the whole sector, no single actor within the system, or even a small group of actors, can take the required action. Action has to be taken by a body outside the system, action that has the effect of determining where the class boundaries lie, across the whole system. This can be done only by a regulator – just as Ofqual arrested the steady increase of top grades for GCSE a few years ago.”

“Oh!”

For an analysis of the systemic effects driving the inflation of GCSE grades, and of how Ofqual, the regulator of school examinations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, arrested what was called “the race to the bottom”, see, for example,

https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/7c5491_9ce5ee3a1bc6403f9a6b441d40467505.pdf. Structurally, of course, the schools and higher education sectors are very different; that said, the fundamental causes of grade/class inflation are likely to be very similar.