Lecturers refute Times attack on grade inflation

DURHAM’S ACADEMIC success is based entirely on better teaching and better students, and not due to lecturers being pressured to ‘inflate degrees’.

An article in The Sunday Times last weekend suggested that university academics have been under increasing pressure to ‘inflate’ the degree band awarded to students in order to improve their institutions ranking in national and international league tables, Palatinate asked several members of the University’s academic staff whether they recognised in these accusations a reflection of current practise at Durham. All lecturers contacted were unequivocal in their defence of the university’s grading practice.

The Sunday Times alleged that universities are coming under pressure to award higher degrees to students. By boosting 2:2 students up to a 2:1, the universities can raise their league table position, where a university’s ranking can affect the calibre of students who apply there. Inflating degrees can also enable a university to gain status and improve its reputation.

Many institutions also are put under pressure by students themselves, who are concerned that they won’t be able to get a good job without at least a 2:1. Students who pay the £3,000 a year tuition fees are particularly keen to get the most from their degrees, and are, it has been suggested, more likely to challenge their marks if they don’t get the results that they are expecting.

Upper second class degrees have become a must for most career paths and postgraduate degrees, and students are more than aware that if they graduate with a 2:2, they will have less of a chance of finding a good job.

Some of the UK’s Top 30 universities such as Sussex, Liverpool and Southampton have all seen a significant increase in the percentage of firsts between 1996 and 2006, according to the Sunday Times. Liverpool saw a 23% increase, and former professor of English Jonathan Bate claims that before he left the university in 2003, he was reminded that awarding students higher degrees would “push the institution up national and international league tables.”

Durham also featured on the list of universities with an increase in firsts and upper-seconds of 14% from 1999-2006.

However, when Durham departments were contacted to see if they had experienced pressure to award more firsts and 2:1s, the answer was a resounding ‘no’. Staff maintain that the calibre of students who apply to Durham result in the high proportion of firsts and 2:1s, and that marking is always in-keeping with the strict guidelines and criteria that the university use every year.

“Our student admission quality profile at Durham consistently generates a degree success profile with a natural preponderance of II.1s. That of course gives us a certain natural position (high) in the tables,” says Professor Nicholas Saul, Chair of the School of Modern Languages. “There may be occasional extremely rare minor variations in the profile,” he admits, “but we resist grade inflation on principle, so that a Durham degree continues to retain its solid worth.”

History professor Michael Prestwich takes a similar stance “The proportions of students getting different degree classes has changed over the years; the degrees we award are, in my view, a proper recognition of the achievement of our students,” he insists.

Alaistair Renfrew, Head of Russian, was a professor at Exeter University until last year. “My experience at Durham is that this is less of an issue than at previous institutions, where I’ve seen some fairly ‘liberal’ criteria applied on occasion,” he says. “The logic is that the higher the tariff for entry, the more students we and other comparable institutions would expect to be able to get firsts and 2:1 degrees.”

University league tables are based on a combination of the proportion of top grades, as well as student satisfaction, student to staff ratio and dropout rate. Another factor in compiling the tables is the average A/AS Level points score – some institutions claim that it is becoming more and more difficult to choose the best applicants because of A Level grade inflation. Critics claim that degrees are becoming easier as a result of the increase in top A Level grades – ten years ago, the proportion of firsts
stood at 10%, whereas now this figure is nearer to 20%.

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