The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency has just published its latest data on student enrolments and qualifications obtained for the academic year 2010/11. Key findings include:
- just over 2.5 million people are enroled in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs)
- slightly more students are doing postgraduate courses (up 2% since 2009/10), with slightly fewer doing undergraduate ones
- UK domiciled students account for 83% of all enrolments
- there is some considerable volatility in subject areas: for undergraduates enrolments in agriculture and related subjects increased 11% between 2009/10, whereas for architecture, building and planning, they decreased 6%; for postgraduates the greatest increase was in mathematical sciences (8%), whereas computer science numbers declined 6%.
- 64% of students gained an upper second or first class degree; more women than men achieved such degrees (65% of full-time students received such degrees; 51% of part-time students) (see Table 6 of HESA statistics).
One of the most striking of these findings is the continual grade inflation that is taking place in higher education. In 2006/7 only 60% of all students gained upper second or first class degrees. Going back in time, in 2000/01 only 54% of full-time students gained such degrees, and in 1994/95 it was 49% (HESA statistics). Such inflation is hardly surprising, given that institutions are increasingly being judged externally by this measure. I doubt that it is improvements in the quality of teaching that have led to such results.
Typical measures that universities use to inflate such results operate both at the institutional level through the mechanisms that are used to turn marks into overall grades, but also in the ways through which marks for courses are derived. Institutionally, the following are typical mechanisms that have been used:
- introducing systems that ignore the worst marks achieved
- weighting the overall portfolio of marks in ways that lead to higher overall grades
- introducing mechanistic processes for candidates just below a threshold that automatically elevate them to the higher grade
- reducing the amount of unseen terminal examinations, and increasing the amount of easier types of assessment at which students perform better
At the more individual level, academics are also judged by the quality of results obtained by students doing their courses, and so it is quite common to find academics who:
- give strong hints at the subject matter that will be coming up in unseen exams
- give substantial amounts of help to students on assignments, such as dissertations, that are meant to be independent
- decide to be that little bit more generous at the margins, choosing to emphasise the stronger points over the weaker ones
- restructure their courses so that they contain elements that students find it easier to do well in
It could be argued that each of these is desirable, and that we should indeed be rewarding our good students for the efforts that they put in. The fundamental point to be noted, though, is that getting a ‘good’ degree in 2011 means something very different from getting an upper second or first even a decade ago.