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Degree classification, grade inflation and COVID: lessons from 2019–20

  • 16 April 2021
  • By Chris Hale

This blog was kindly contributed by Chris Hale, Director of Policy, Universities UK. You can find Chris and UUK on Twitter @chrishaleuk and @UniversitiesUK.

There was a particularly bright spotlight on universities last year as the pandemic forced them to make fast changes to their policies and transition to online teaching, learning and assessment. Universities were rightly under pressure to offer students the best support possible – particularly disadvantaged students facing digital poverty – while maintaining high academic standards. Universities UK and GuildHE’s new report, Degree Classification in 2019-20, reflects on approaches taken across the sector and the lessons to be learned as universities look towards the future.

To mitigate the exceptional challenges the pandemic created for students, universities across the sector made different adaptions to their degree awarding policies. Adaptions included ‘no detriment’ policies to protect a student’s prior achievement; mitigating circumstances policies – existing processes which many amended to take account of the pandemic; and safety nets, newly introduced measures including adjustments to teaching, learning and assessments. These measures were appropriate for supporting students at such an unprecedented time. Just as the school and college sector had to make drastic changes, universities had to adapt too. That said, there were clear differences between schools and universities. Universities were fortunate they had less of their academic year left to complete when lockdown began. They changed the format of many assessments and were able to ensure marks were awarded based on performance, retaining some of their normal assurance processes and helping to uphold quality and standards.

Despite this, it is important that the sector interrogates and understands the 6% increase in upper awards observed last year. At first glance this increase may seem an inevitable and direct consequence of ‘no detriment’ and safety net policies, but there are a range of factors that might have impacted on degree classification during this period. Most notably the dramatic changes to teaching, learning and assessment. Universities continued to take student feedback on board to consistently improve online teaching and learning during this time, making breakthroughs with online teaching and learning at a speed which the sector simply has not seen before. Students’ hard work and focus are also likely to have played their part.

It is also important to remember that the increase in upper awards in the last academic year follows the progress we know the sector had made to tackle unexplained grade inflation. In 2019, the sector published a UK-wide statement of intent which outlined specific commitments universities would make to strengthen transparency, fairness and reliability in degree classification. Just one year on in 2020, a review established that considerable progress has been made in line with those commitments, which included ensuring assessments challenge and stretch students and reviewing the methods of grade calculation. And we know that in the 2018-19 academic year there was a levelling off in the proportion of 1sts and 2:1 degrees awarded, with no increase witnessed.

Through our new report we also want to highlight that – despite the disruption that the sector faced – the focus on flexibility and accessibility over the last year may also have contributed to the narrowing of attainment gaps between different groups of students. Gaps in achievement between white and black students narrowed, as did gaps between disabled students and disadvantaged students and their peers; so too did attainment gaps between female and male students. For this to be the case despite the issues which many students faced, and universities worked hard to overcome, is a sign of progress. Universities will of course want to maintain this progress in the future and further work needs to take place to understand the role of digital learning in this. Universities can take this forward later this year by revisiting their Degree Outcomes Statements. Looking at student outcomes in the context of the pandemic will be crucial to ensure the right lessons are learnt for the future.

The legacy impact of the pandemic on students is of course far from over and it is difficult to predict patterns in degree classification. Final students this year have experience longer periods of disruption, so it is essential that universities continue to recognise their different needs while acknowledging the commitments made through the statement of intent. The importance of ensuring that students are not disadvantaged by the pandemic remains. Universities must continue to ensure their policies reflect this in appropriate ways, as well as continue to identify areas where online teaching and learning has boosted performance and maintain a strong focus on academic integrity. It has been a difficult experience for everyone involved, but students can have confidence that their qualification holds value and reflects their academic achievement during a truly extraordinary time.

In just under two weeks in partnership with London South Bank University, HEPI will be hosting a free-to-attend webinar on universities’ contribution to social mobility. We’ll be hearing from a superb selection of speakers including the CEO of the Social Mobility Foundation, Sarah Atkinson, and Phil Baty, Editor of the the World University Rankings among others.

Spaces are limited so make sure you sign up here.

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