Universities in England have pledged to reverse degree inflation for first-class degrees and 2.1s, returning the proportion of upper degree classes to pre-pandemic levels.
Both Universities UK and GuildHE have said that by 2023 they will bring the proportion of 2.1s and first-class degrees back in line with pre-pandemic levels, in the first statement of its kind.
There has been a rise in degree grade inflation during the pandemic following the introduction of measures such as “no detriment” policies to mitigate the impact of Covid disruptions to students’ studies.
In 2020/21, over one in three students (36%) achieved the top grade of a first-class degree, according to data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).
The latest HESA figures also showed that 46% of degrees were awarded a 2:1, while 3% were a third (2:2) or a pass.
HESA researchers attributed the rise in firsts to how universities changed their assessment policies during the pandemic.
Universities in 2019/20 – the first year of the pandemic – adopted “no detriment”, or safety net, assessment policies because of Covid’s impact. This tended to ensure students would not receive a final grade that was lower than the university’s most recent assessment of their work.
While “blanket ‘no detriment’” policies were not in place in 2020/21, other assessment changes such as open-book exams remained.
The UUK and GuildHE statement said it recognized grade inflation which could not be explained by improvements in teaching and learning or more effort from students risked undermining employers’ confidence in the degree grading process.
Universities said they will use 2019 as a benchmark for the proportion of upper second and first-class degrees awarded, a point before the pandemic when the proportion of upper-second degrees was leveling off because of measures taken by institutions.
“In recent years, universities have been proactive and taken collective action to strengthen internal processes that impact on degree classification,” the bodies said.
“The result was a leveling off by 2018–19 in the percentage of students achieving upper degree awards,” they said, adding that before the pandemic they had been making plans for further reviews and changes to limit grade inflation further.
“However, we cannot lose sight of the need to maintain the value of a degree and so must redouble our efforts to identify and address unexplained increases in firsts and 2.1s,” they said.
“As a sector, we commit to reviewing our classification levels against the pre-pandemic progress that had seen trends stabilizing.”
The bodies said they will publish degree outcome statements by the end of 2022, setting out their plans to go back to pre-pandemic levels of degree classification, and that they will evaluate their progress in early 2023.
They added that any actions to limit grade inflation paused during the pandemic would restart.
Steve West CBE, president of Universities UK and vice chancellor of UWE Bristol, said: “The UK’s universities have a global reputation for excellence and we must keep confidence in the value of our degrees high.
“The pandemic brought uniquely challenging circumstances and students who have graduated over the last three years should feel proud of, and confident in, the qualifications they worked hard to achieve.
“As we emerge and look to the future, we have an opportunity to take meaningful action and strengthen our commitment to fair, transparent and reliable degree classification.”
Anthony McClaran, chair of GuildHE and vice chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, said universities were “strongly committed to maintaining robust academic standards”.
“As we emerge from the pandemic it is time to redouble our focus on protecting academic standards and take strong action to ensure we maintain the wider confidence and trust in the system.”
Higher and further education minister Michelle Donelan said she was “delighted” to have worked on the statement with the two bodies.
“Just as the Government is restoring pre-pandemic grading at GCSE and A-Level by 2023, today’s statement will ensure that universities are also eliminating the grade inflation that occurred over the pandemic, and on the same timetable. Together, we are taking action to restore high standards across our education system,” she said.
“Hardworking students deserve to know that earning a first or upper second really counts and that it carries weight with employers – who in turn should be able to trust in the high value and rigorous assessment of university courses.”