University denies grade inflation

By and Alex Leggatt

Durham University has denied accusations of apparent grade inflation, instead arguing that all grades reflect the true abilities of students.

According to an investigation by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), Durham University has seen the 6th highest increase in first-class honours out of the Russell Group Universities, jumping from 17.8% in 2011 to 30.2% in 2016.

As shown in an investigation by The Sunday Times, Durham University is part of a larger trend of apparent grade inflation, which some argue is in response to the tripling of tuition fees five years ago.

Durham has seen the 6th highest increase in first-class honours out of the Russell Group Universities.

The government aims to crack down on University grade inflation in response to a near 10% increase in first-class and upper-second class degrees from 2010-11 to 2016-17 according to the government watchdog Office for Students (OfS).

The OfS believes that “spiralling grade inflation” risked undermining public confidence. Universities that are deemed excessive in their awarding of first-class and upper second-class degrees will be downgraded within the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF).

Damian Hinds, Secretary of State for Education, hoped that these figures would act as a “wake-up call”: “the scale of this increase in firsts and 2:1s cannot be proportionate to improving standards.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, argued that an increase in work ethic can explain the proportional increase in first-class degrees being awarded:

“As you wander round universities, the student union bars are empty […] and working environments are full”.

Our awards reflect the quality of our students and the education they receive at Durham


Professor Alan Houston, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Education at Durham added: “Durham admits exceptional students, and then strives to bring out the best in each and every one of them.”

“External examiners consistently commend the rigour of Durham degrees. We are committed to maintaining this, and we are scrupulous in decisions made regarding our degree classifications. Our students are fully deserving of the high grades which they work hard for.”

“The rising attainment of our students follows extensive and ongoing work to progress the quality of education at Durham. In particular, we have promoted the value of thorough and constructive feedback, which enables our students to make huge strides and to reach their full potential.”

“Our commitment to research-led education and our outstanding wider student experience give our students important intellectual capabilities, enhanced employment skills, and challenges them to learn independently and problem solve.”

“Durham graduates are some of the most sought-after nationally, demonstrating that employers and postgraduate recruiters place high value in a Durham degree classification.”

Photograph by Maddie Flisher

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