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Opinion | Grade Inflation does not matter

Are students really worse than the undergraduates of yester year? Has the matter of grade inflation got out of hand? Are firsts less impressive than before? The Government thinks so, but I certainly do not.

By, Callum Ruddock, Third Year, Politics and International Relations

27% of students obtained a first-class honours degree in 2016/2017, up from 16% in 2010/11. Of all university students, 78% now obtain an upper degree (first or 2:1). Analysis of these figures concluded that the scale of this rise cannot be attributed to the rise in pupils’ prior attainment or changes in student demographics alone.

To measure the impressiveness of the first. To report on the matter of grade inflation. To define what is deserving of academic merit. Mighty tasks for the meek undergraduate – an assessment of sorts required of me.

But what does it matter? Are students really worse than the undergraduates of yester-year? Has the matter of grade inflation got out of hand? Are firsts less impressive than before? The Government thinks so, but I certainly do not. For me the question is not whether they are more or less impressive than before; the question is, ‘who cares?’

We should refute any accusations of idiocy, recognising the ever-shifting nature of modern higher education. We must place it all in the context of university monetisation. And, we can abandon any attempt at comparison, because with that we condemn a generation. When we place the blame on Universities, it naturally shifts onto students. And whilst so much of me is ready to accept that we’re a higher calibre of student, it is likely other factors are at play.

In my despair I risk sounding like some proverbial young conservative desperately hailing the ‘meritocracy we all deserve.’ This rhetoric is ill informed and is a profound miss reading of society. With or without grade inflation, our personal value and impact on the world beyond university relies far more on our personal capabilities. Remember, plenty of people have changed the world with their 2:2.

Monetisation of University has lead to fears around grade inflation | Epigram / Leah Martindale

Before coming to university, I had naively assumed that I would gain an education in all the things I’d ever need to be successful. Certainly, outside of STEM, I’d assumed studying politics would mean learning how to govern. Art history leading me towards a career in art; law preparing me to assess a crime. But this isn’t what university is for. We all know this. Base knowledge is important, but the real lessons are in how to think.

Through this we discover great things, a notion deserving more attention than given to it by our ever-expanding educational machine.

British universities have continued to award an increasing number of degrees. They’re a national success story with more and more people gaining access to a higher tier of education. Universities, it seems, have managed to surge in both size and quality. Then, all of a sudden, it became acceptable to name and shame.

Perhaps grade inflation is the result of a method of learning based on transaction? That a first is a must if we wish to succeed beyond graduation.

I will respond clearly and plainly. I do not consider this to be true. We shouldn’t worry about the impressiveness of a first if we accept that university has lost its purpose. We should celebrate the growing number of people in higher education and take steps to refocus its aims. We mustn’t get caught up trying to measure its value if we place its broader meaning in context.

Now I’m sure someone will write to me in response arguing that we all don’t have the luxury of pursuing our dreams; the world isn’t full of Elon Musk’s “who don’t give a damn about our degrees”. But if buying into this grade factory means monetising learning, I’d rather find a third way. Academics have fought great battles in efforts to uphold standards. The importance of education for all remains. Some will argue that you would have made better use of your time elsewhere doing something different, with someone else.

The importance of education for all remains

In conversation with Professor Wickham-Jones I seek an explanation. I think his response is apt and so have included it below:

“I am dubious about claims of grade inflation. For years many top universities gave so few firsts it was not worth having the category and certainly did not mean there were no good first-class students out there. Once you defined a first and mapped out the grade descriptors, students were going to achieve that level. Moreover, it's not really surprising more students are getting firsts when you think about what has changed in higher education. The standard of teaching has improved. A levels are better taught. Essays are now typed, packaged and presented in a completely different way. Most importantly, students have access to a much wider range of sources and material as well as to theoretical literature that have impacted on the quality of the work they do. How does student work compare with what was being done 35 years ago? Quite simply, it is at a far higher standard, especially in dissertations and extended essays. … Obviously I can't speak for practises elsewhere.”

And there we have it. Maybe not wiser scholars, but certainly more able to communicate our ideas. The Government’s desire to blame is rooted in an understanding that all the matters is numbers. Meritocracy must be the outcome of mathematics. Distributions and curves will define our world without paying any attention to those that succeed regardless. And as I said this does not lessen the importance of education. It strengthens it with calls for the pursuit of knowledge above all else.

Grade inflation hasn’t weakened out education system. It just reflects a new one driven by ideals that differ to those established 50 years prior.

To answer the question – does this undermine the expressiveness of the first? Who cares?

Do you think that grade inflation is a worry?