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October 29, 2008

Grade Inflation is “slow and uncontrolled”

Grade Inflation “has occurred at Warwick” and continues to incrementally impact undergraduate results, the Boar has been told.

Dr Duclaud-Williams, a lecturer in the Politics department said: “there is no longer the balance between 2:1s and 2:2s as there was ten or twenty years ago; in examiners’ minds 2:2 scripts are now deemed as substantially defective… today there’s an enormous concentration of 2:1s in my department and others.”

Even so, he and other lecturers are adamant that there is no pressure from the University to award higher marks, but said that it was inevitable that institutions and examiners want to improve results: “All institutions come under competitive pressure”.

Responding the possibility that employers are having trouble differentiating between graduates, he recommended that they should be given the relative performance of students according to their year, but that examiners and lecturers should be left to their traditional understanding of grade classifications.

This view was supported by Professor Jonathan Bate of the English Department: “What I do believe is that the old four class system has reached its sell-by date: in all the top universities, the third is an endangered species and the 2:2, which used to be regarded as the benchmark average performance, is now perceived by students as a kind of failure.”

“This shows that we’re doing a good job on admissions, and that the current generation of students are more results focused than many of us were in my generation, but it’s hard to see the logic of a classification system where the lower classes are used as they are now. The system originated as a kind of rank order: as it were, first class meant the top 5% of finalists, 2:1 the next 40%, 2:2 the next 40%, 3rd the next 10% and 4th, the bottom 5%. I think we’d do better to ditch classes and go for some kind of American-style grade point average.”

Indeed, Andrés Carvajal of the Economics department thinks that the system has a big “inertia”:

“...if one year you give a distribution of grades that is considered atypical when compared to previous years, I would expect that someone (e.g. an external) would ask you to explain, and maybe even curve the grades. But this does not qualify as inflation, as it could go both ways: if my grades are seen to be too generous, I suspect that some alarms would go off.
“...for many people in the UK, a scale 0-100 actually means 30-70. I always use the full scale, so I can give a good student a mark of 97, which may seem like inflation to a person who would give 71 to a Nobel prize-winning essay. But, again, it isn’t: I am also willing to give a student a mark of 3, if their work is really bad.

“To me, the reason that may explain grades going up is the real pain that you have to go through when you fail people – like writing, proctoring and marking resits. So, if you want to do research, you better avoid failing students. But I don’t consider this to be “pressure” – it is just wrong incentives.”

According to University figures, compared to 2003/04, when 20% of Warwick degrees awarded were first class, there was a small increase to 23% in 2006/7 after minor fluctuations in the interim years. 2:1s have hovered around the 61.2% mark and 2:2s have averaged at 14.4% figure for the past five years.

In the long term, the picture is quite different. In March 2004, the BBC reported that Warwick “saw the proportion of students gaining first-class degrees almost double from 10.6% to 20.3% during the five years” between 1998 and 2003.

At the time, a University spokesman said what it was “no surprise” that the results were getting better: “We are becoming more and more popular and we are attracting better candidates”.

At present, the University still awards well above the average of first class honours, approximately double the 2006/07 national average of 11.7%. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, Warwick is also well above the Russell Group of Universities’ average of 15.7%.

Professor Robin Naylor of the Economics department contests the reasons behind such a rise: “There’s certainly a higher percentage of firsts awarded than was the case, say, 20 years ago: but is this grade inflation, or better work by students, or better teaching? No-one has done an analysis of this locally”.

From the point of view of the Students’ Union Education Officer Mo Surve, a 2:1 from Warwick does not mean any less today than it did ten years ago: “Receiving a 2.1 from one of the top Russell Group institutions is not to be taken lightly. A lecturer I know at another university told me that a 65/66 at Warwick would be equivalent to gaining a first at the institution at which she lectures.”

He also shares the view that there is no pressure on lecturers to award higher marks. Citing a change in the system the Students’ Union won a “few years ago”, marking is now carried out anonymously and some departments double mark all assessed work to ensure there is no bias towards or against a student.

Mr Surve said: “…marking is carried out as objectively as possible and should cut any grade inflation/deflation down to a minimum. If, in some cases when examiners cannot come to an agreement, the external examiner comes to a decision.”

For many students at Warwick, a 2:1 is a prerequisite to attain a job after leaving university. Darshan Shah, an engineering student in his final year said: “If you haven’t got adequate work experience, a 2:1 would be a usual minimum requirement for a ‘good’ job.”

Ian Liverton, a trainee Design technology teacher who graduated last year in electronic engineering takes a more pessimistic view: “As someone with a 2:2, it’s very hard to find graduate placement. I only got my present job because of my experience as an ICT technician at my school.”

Whilst there was considerable grade inflation between 1998 and 2002, the recent figures demonstrate only a slight increase in the proportion of firsts awarded between 2002 and 2006/07 – evewn though the figure 479 firsts in 2006/07 compared to 396 in 2002/03 show that an extra 83 firsts were awarded, or a 21% nominal increase.

As for the national perspective, which has seen the number of first class honours awarded has double over the past decade, Professor Naylor told the Boar that it is more important to look at the disparity between universities:

“If grade inflation occurs in some institutions and not others then that could create unfairness and inefficiency through generating uncertainties and imperfect information.” Dr Geoff Meaden, who retired as a lecturer this year at Canterbury Christ Church University, says:

“They say that the teaching is getting better – by and large this is rubbish. Having worked in schools and/or universities for 30 years I can tell you that it is not. In fact, generally, the kids are getting more difficult to teach. The grades are getting better because marking is now more lenient than it was previously. Notice that I do not say that the exams are getting easier – which I don’t think they are. So, an exam answer today will get about 10% more than would the same answer have got 20 years ago. Why is there a need for higher grades – because schools and universities are competing with each other – by way of various leagues tables. You have to be shown to be near the top if you are to attract the best students – or indeed sufficient students to maintain the viability of courses. I have attended many examiners meetings where we have been told to mark a little more generously. There seem to be all sort of ways of squeezing a few extra marks out for students. When I was at university the ‘average’ grade was a 2(ii) – today it is a 2(i) for many universities. This means that the students are getting 10% higher grades. Well – I am afraid that evolutionary processes could not allow the brain to have developed that much more in such a short space of time !! I think that the world of work recognises what is going on and just accepts that today’s grades are not comparable with those of the past. Also, it now behoves students to get themselves Masters degrees if they are to be ahead of the crowd. In many ways grade inflation does not matter much – but I just wish that the powers that be told the truth about what is happening”

Yet, in Warwick’s case, the University maintains that the calibre of the students is the reason behind the higher than average first class honours awarded. Defending the quality of the University, they claim that: “Data on first destinations of undergraduate students who graduated in 2005 shows that 90% had entered full employment or were taking further study.”
Peter Dunn, the University’s press manager added: “Warwick students get the degree results they deserve…We continue to attract some of the best staff and best students from the UK and beyond and the more of the cream we attract the better their academic performance will be -it’s a virtuous circle.”


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