Grade inflation and the deflation of a university education

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At the moment, it seems that university is mainly a financial investment. Fees, sleep deprivation, stiff necks and anxiety-ridden days, all in exchange for a meagre second glance at a graduate’s resume – only for the recruiter to say: “A 2:1? I’ve seen thousands of it today.” And so, students scramble for extracurricular internships, industry attachments, executive positions in societies, volunteering opportunities; the list goes on. University education is almost entirely driven by performance measurement; students’ grades and portfolios are expected to reflect their quality, desirability, and work ethic comprehensively.

Critics lamenting that grade inflation lowers academic standards cement the notion that ‘students cannot win.’ The fundamental contradiction lies in painting ‘academic standards’ simultaneously as what students must achieve and what students can realistically achieve. Students need to bring to the table, at a minimum, a 2:1 accompanied with at least a page worth of extracurricular achievements to be acknowledged in the job market. However, with the current discourse reigning over grade inflation, expectations for university students dangerously pivot to an unattainable standard. 

Students need a 2:1 and at least a page worth of extracurriculars to be acknowledged in the job market

We are branded as a ‘coddled’ generation that cries out for undeserved A’s or demands safety-net policies to tide us through the pandemic-shrouded academic year(s). The lived reality of many students tells a different tale. The hard work and outstanding intellectual flair of many students diluted down to having their grades inflated, combined with the continuous upward trend of the standards we are held to, show the paradoxical battle students are faced with. It is difficult to see where ‘coddled’ fits into the narrative.

Beyond the debate on who is to blame for the phenomenon of grade inflation, it is unfortunate to see that higher education has been reduced to just grades. Students are encouraged to study rather than learn. Many of us enter university with much academic fervour, but as the semesters trudge on, we understand that it is wiser to choose modules that earn easier grades, pick out essay topics that are safer to write, and follow grading guidelines to a tee.

Education is about stepping outside of our comfort zones and exposing ourselves to new knowledge and skills. Education is not about fitting ourselves neatly into the mould of an ‘A’ grade. Education is participation in a community-wide learning experience: to debate, discuss, critique and question. Education is not about saying or doing the right things at the right time or knowing the right people for an ‘A’ grade.

In a race to get the credentials we need to survive in the competitive, brutal job market, we are conditioned to forgo academic curiosity and originality in exchange for a one-size-fits-all depiction of a successful student. And the moral panic about grade inflation does nothing to help the current plight of how education is perceived. It plays directly into the notion that higher education is worth nothing more than where our grades get us. It serves as a one-dimensional, destructive discourse that threatens to completely distract attention away from a much needed alternative discussion on what purpose education in universities should aim to achieve.

It is unfortunate to see that higher education has been reduced to just grades

Perhaps a more constructive approach to the debate would be to question why unjustified grade inflation occurs (if it does happen) in the first instance. Rather than touting grandiose ideologies of ‘maintaining academic standards’ to disguise the fact that grades and degrees are used as convenient identification of quality hires, we should go back to the drawing board and reconfigure what education should truly aim to provide.

There is more to education than grades. If the alleged grade inflation purportedly risks the ‘devaluation of a university degree’, one has to ask: what exactly is the value of a degree?

Image: Inãki Del Olmo via Unsplash

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