Universities in England have been criticized for awarding “excessive” first-class diplomas during the pandemic, and ministers and regulators have accused the sector of undermining its own reputation.
The Office for students (OfS) has published an analysis stating that more than half of the first-class diplomas awarded in 2021 cannot be explained by “observational factors” such as previous results or students ’social background.
Susan Lapworth, interim executive director of OfS, said: “Undeserved inflation harms students, graduates and employers and damages the reputation of English higher education.”
Michelle Danelan, Minister of Universities Englandsaid universities should respond in the same way as the A-level and GCSE exams, and restore the premium level to a pandemic by next year.
“An unjustified increase in the proportion of higher degrees awarded threatens to undermine the value of British degrees,” Donelan said. “We expect OfS to challenge registered providers with an excessive proportion of the higher degrees awarded.”
OfS said nearly 38% of students in England received their first awards in 2020-21, more than double the 16% awarded a decade earlier and above 29% before the pandemic.
But the OfS analysis also considered “unexplained” first, defined as awards that “cannot be statistically accounted for by changes in the characteristics of a cohort of graduates” for each university.
The Royal Academy of Music has been accused of awarding the largest share of “unexplained” first among 80% of students awarded first last year. Among the major universities, Bradford had 41% of its first classified as unexplained by OfS statisticians, while Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) had 37% unexplained.
A QMUL spokesman said the Sutton Trust recognized him as the best in the country for social mobility. “We are proud to open the door to opportunities for all who have the potential to succeed at Russell Group University,” they said. “We are equally proud of our successful world-leading work to reduce the achievement gap between white students and BAME students, which has resulted in our degree results becoming a true reflection of our students’ abilities.”
Steve West, Vice Chancellor of UWE Bristol and President of the UK University Group, said OfS also “fairly” wanted students not to be limited in what grades they could receive. “We believe OfS should be careful not to assume that students with lower elementary grades, usually from more disadvantaged backgrounds, cannot get a higher degree,” West said.
Ofqual, the regulator of examinations in England, also announced that students who pass level A and GCSE in the future will benefit from simpler questions and avoid references that can confuse candidates and put them at a disadvantage.
The regulator was concerned that students could be unfairly hampered by middle-class bias in the language used in questions such as the 2017 GCSE math, which described a theater where “everyone took a seat in a circle or took a seat at a kiosk”. Candidates were asked to count how many of the 2,600 seats were occupied, but students should understand that the circle and kiosks are in different sections to answer correctly.
In 2019, examiners for the GCSE issue in German Modern Language said some students had difficulty when asked to describe the pros and cons of skiing.
Joe Saxton, chief regulator of Ofqual, said: “It’s not about facilitating exams and assessments, it’s about breaking down barriers that prevent young people from reaching their true potential, and making sure exams really test what they’re designed for.”
The new rules include a commitment to accurate and consistent planning to help candidates with special needs or disabilities.
An Autism Education Trust spokesman said: “This is a positive step towards creating a more inclusive education system that recognizes the need to make adjustments to support the needs of all children and young people with autism to realize their potential and get a fair chance to demonstrate their skills and ability ”.