Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents



  Mantz Yorke

Visiting Professor, Lancaster University



  A five-year run of honours degree awards from institutions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, spanning the years 2002-03 to 2006-07, is analysed. Whilst the general picture is of an upward trend in the percentage of "good honours degrees", at sub-sectoral level the pattern of trends differs in some respects from that derived from the preceding eight-year run of data.

"Grade inflation"

"Grade inflation" is perceived as a longstanding problem for education at a variety of levels and across national systems. In the UK, for example, there is an annual ritual when the results of public examinations are announced, in which claims that standards are declining are countered by claims that improved grades are a consequence of improved teaching and greater diligence on the part of students. As regards higher education in the UK, there are analogous claims of slipping standards when summaries of honours degree results are published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (see, for example, Attwood, 2008). There has been a longstanding belief in some quarters of the US that grade inflation is endemic. Adelman (2008) argues that this is due to increases in grades awarded in elite institutions and the disproportionate attention that such institutions command in the media.

There is a variety of definitions of "grade inflation" in the literature (see Yorke, 2008, p.108ff). Some are naïve; others acknowledge the complexity that is inherent in the construct. Even if one defines grade inflation fairly neutrally in terms of an increasing divergence between the grade awarded and the actual achievement (with the former exceeding the latter), there are embedded assumptions about demographic equivalence, the baseline for measurement, the relationship between achievement and grade, and the stability of what is being measured. Despite the use of "subject benchmarks" (see ) as points of reference for higher education curricula in the UK, the exercise of institutional autonomy undermines the possibility of arriving at definitive conclusions as to the causes of changes in grading outcomes across the higher education sector. There are simply too many variables in play.

The JACS categorisation of academic subjects

Academic subjects in the UK are categorised by the Higher Education Statistics Agency [HESA] according to the Joint Academic Coding System [JACS], with the categorisation being possible at different levels of "granularity". In the present paper, the coarsest level of granularity has been used. This represents a preference for largish numbers in institutional subject disciplines over the fineness of detail that is bought at the expense of statistical robustness. At the start of the academic year 2002-03, JACS replaced the original subject codings used by HESA. The change had two facets: first, the subject classification was changed and, second, the outcomes of joint-honours and combined subjects honours degrees were roughly apportioned to the relevant constituent subject headings (they had previously been swept up into a composite grouping of combined programmes). This meant that, under JACS, there would be a discontinuity with respect to the trends that were computed for the academic years 1994-95 to 2001-02.

Trends in the award of "good honours degrees", 1995-2002

The "good honours degree" (an upper second [2.1] or a first class honours degree) is often taken as a yardstick of success, in that it opens doors to careers and other opportunities that would generally remain closed to graduates with lower classes of honours (ie lower second [2.2] and third class honours). The third class honours degree is an endangered species, judging by the decline in the use of that category which is, nevertheless, a passing grade. It makes sense, therefore, to focus attention on the boundary between upper and lower second class honours, and to use as an index of trend the percentage of awards above the boundary. The percentage is calculated with reference to the total number of honours and "pass" degrees awarded:

100 x (N firsts + N 2.1s) (N firsts + N 2.1s + N 2.2s + N thirds/pass)

This index omits unclassified degrees, since across the system there is a scattering of programmes that award degrees on only a non-honours basis (the number of these has diminished over time). "Pass" degrees are awarded to students whose achievements on an honours programme narrowly fail to satisfy the criteria for honours: this may be due to deliberately opting not to do the honours project or dissertation, and/or because performance in one or more curricular components falls below an acceptable standard. For reasons of this kind, pass degree awards are included in the denominator of the ratio. (There is, in practice, some blurring arising from variations in institutional practice in the reporting with respect to the pass and unclassified categories, and consequently some error: however, the method chosen minimises this.) The trend is computed according to the formula:

(% "good degrees") = (m * year) + constant ,

  with the trend being the slope [m] of this linear regression equation. The trend is expressed as the averaged annual change (in terms of percentage points) in the percentage of "good honours degrees" awarded. Its statistical significance depends on the closeness of the sequence of the data-points to a straight line (see the Appendix to this paper).

  Data regarding the classifications of honours degrees awarded between 1995 and 2002 were supplied by HESA. Analyses showed that, across the higher education sector in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there was a general shift towards the upper end of the honours classification scale (Yorke, 2008). (Data from Scottish institutions were not included in the analyses because of the different approach in Scotland to the award of honours.) The rate of rise varied with broad subject area and institution (Figure 1).

  Unexpectedly, the rise was much stronger in the elite "Russell Group" universities than in other institutions and, on the relatively limited evidence available from the Higher Education Statistics Agency regarding entry qualifications, there seemed to be no reason to conclude that entry qualifications constituted an important factor in the trend in honours degree classification (Yorke, 2008, p.92ff). Adelman (2008) shows that there has been a similar effect in elite institutions in the US, and that across the great swathe of less-prestigious institutions the grade-point average has remained fairly steady.

  Figure 1. Trends in the percentage of "good honours degrees" awarded in the years 1995 to 2002, by institutional type.


  Coll = institutions not universities in 2002; New = universities designated as such following the 1992 Education Act; Old NotR = pre-92 universities, but not in the Russell Group; Russ = Russell Group universities.

Alli Med = Subjects allied to Medicine; Bio Sci—Biological Sciences; Agr = Agriculture & related subjects; Phy Sci = Physical Sciences; Mat Sci = Mathematical Sciences; Com Sci = Computer Science;

  Eng & T = Engineering & Technology; Arc = Architecture, Building & Planning; Soc Stu = Social Studies; Law = Law; Bus & Ad = Business & Administrative Studies;

  Mas Com = Mass Communication & Documentation; Lan = Languages;

  Hist & Ph = Historical & Philosophical Studies; Cre A&D = Creative Arts & Design; Edu = Education.

Trends in the award of "good honours degrees", 2003-07

  Data are now available from HESA which cover the five-year span between academic years 2002-03 and 2006-07. These have enabled trend analyses to be reinstated. The recent computed trends are less likely to exhibit statistical significance because of the smaller number of data-points compared with those available to the previous analysis.

Between 2002 (the start of the academic year 2002-03 in which awards were made) and 2007, many colleges (particularly those with broad portfolios of disciplines) became universities, and in the present analysis have been subsumed into the "new universities". The specialist institutions focus on Art & Design, Teacher Education and Agriculture, and so the "specialist institutions" group produced data relevant to only a few of the JACS-designated broad subject areas. As with the previous analyses, some institutional mergers took place during the period in question: these are likely to have introduced some discontinuity into trends, thus reducing the possibility of the trends reaching statistical significance. Further, the University of Cambridge changed its system of reporting honours degree classifications.

  Figure 2 shows the percentage of good honours degrees awarded, by broad institutional type. It is evident that there is a relationship between this percentage and the institutional type.

  Figure 3 shows the respective trends over the five-year period. Compared with the results from the previous eight-year run of data, there is no strong pattern though, when all results are combined, the shift in the percentage of "good degrees" tends to be upward. In considering these results, it needs to be borne in mind that the numbers of awards relating to cells in the Figure can be quite small, and that too much should not be read into trends in such cells. A good example is in Creative Arts & Design, where the bulk of enrolments are to be found in the new universities and the specialist institutions. Hence the overall trend is determined mainly by the results from these institutions, with the other institutions contributing relatively little.

  Figure 2. Percentages of "good honours degrees" awarded in 2007, by institutional type.

  Abbreviations as for Figure 1, save that Spec = specialist institution.

  Figure 3. Trends in the percentage of "good honours degrees" awarded in the years 2003 to 2007, by institutional type.

  Abbreviations as for Figure 1, save that Spec = specialist institution.

Possible influences on trends

  There are many possible contributing influences on the percentage of "good honours degrees", and it is naïve to collect them together under a blanket condemnation of "grade inflation".

Rises in the percentage of "good honours degrees" may be attributable to, inter alia:

    — Improvement in teaching quality.

    — Increased student diligence.

    — "Strategic" students (ie students who opt for modules in which they can expect to obtain a high level of return—measured in terms of grading—for their investment of effort: see Johnson, 2003, for an example).

    — Learning outcomes and explicit criteria. If students know clearly what is expected of them, they will focus their work so as to achieve the best result they can. Quality assurance considerations have been instrumental in focusing on the need for assessments to be as explicit as possible, and for a close alignment between curricular content, pedagogy and assessment (Biggs and Tang, 2007).

    — Increased use of coursework (using the term in a broad sense). Coursework can, if tasks are well constructed and rendered relatively secure from plagiarism and other forms of deception, lead to a better indication of student attainment than can formal examinations: coursework has been shown to give rise to higher marks than such examinations (Bridges et al, 2002; Simonite, 2003; Yorke et al, 2000). A broadening of the range of coursework demands could also be a contributory factor.

    — Changes in award algorithm. "Benchmarking" of award outcomes against cognate institutions has shown on occasion that students may be being disadvantaged compared with their peers. Institutions have on occasion felt it appropriate to adjust the way in which awards are determined in order to fall into line with their comparators. Such adjustments are more likely to edge classifications upwards than downwards.

    — League tables. "Good honours degrees" figure in a number of "league tables", or rankings, of UK institutions. Institutions for which a league table position is deemed to be of significance in marketing are perhaps particularly susceptible to the implicit pressure to boost their position, and assessment practice—not necessarily at the level of the institution—may be influenced despite the attentions of external examiners.

  Student achievement, as indicated by the honours degree classification, may be adversely affected by

    — Distractions from teaching. The roughly quinquennial Research Assessment Exercise [RAE] is a potent influence on institutional activity. The increasing expectations laid on academics to be entrepreneurial may be another influence.

    — Student part-time employment. The evidence suggests that a low level of part-time employment whilst studying full-time is not deleterious to academic performance, but that higher levels can have an adverse effect. (See for example Brennan et al, 2005; Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005).

  There is some ambiguity about the effect of some changes on student achievement, since what may have a positive effect in one context may have an adverse effect elsewhere. Two examples are:

    — Shift in institutional provision (eg course or departmental closures). RAE outcomes that have been relatively poor in some universities have led to the closure of departments and/or the reassignment of staff to other academic areas. In the case of science-based subjects, this may have led to a concentration of the most able students in a smaller number of institutions, with other students shifting into applied or combined programmes, perhaps in other institutions.

    — Entry profiles of students. As well as the preceding point, entry profiles evolve with governmental and/or institutional policy. Demographic projections, such as that of Bekhradnia (2006), are harbingers of future shifts which could have consequences for institutional award profiles.

At root, it's about standards

  The evidence suggests that, although the current of rising percentages of "good honours degrees" is broadly continuing to flow, the more recent results point to some eddies in which the direction of flow is reversed. This is particularly noticeable in the Russell Group of universities, where the strong upward trend over the period 1995-2002 has been reversed in a number of subject areas. The reasons for the shifts in trend cannot be determined from the data—further study is needed to identify whether there are any particular influences at work: ceiling and/or norm-related effects on grades and "regression towards the mean" could be making a contribution.

There is always a temptation to look for a simple causality for rising grades. If "the cause" can be identified, then the problem can be fixed. However, the discussion in the preceding section—which could have been extended—shows that grade-outcomes are susceptible to influences of varying kinds which in turn have varying provenances. There is no simple sectoral "fix", since the multiple influences will have weights that differ according to the context. It is likely that a rising trend in an institution whose entry profile reflects a strong commitment to widening participation arises from a different concatenation of influences than a similar trend in research-led university.

  The underlying issue is that of academic standards. These evolve over time, in response to developments in subject areas, expectations of the higher education system, and so on. A truly self-evaluating institution keeps a watch on its performances and how these relate to its aims and objectives: for the purposes of this paper, the particular performance in question is the summation of a host of student achievements. These, in turn, can only be interpreted against curricular expectations, pedagogy and assessment methods, both within the institution and between institutions. The potential of benchmarking activity, on both an intra-institutional and an inter-institutional basis, is readily apparent.

  The kind of analysis presented in this paper (which takes some time) can be undertaken within the institution, though some cohort numbers will be too small to permit statistically robust conclusions to be drawn. This may not matter greatly, since institutional self-evaluation is inherently formative and hence tolerant of a lower level of reliability than would be needed for summative judgement. Institutional self-evaluation, done properly, is not an easy option but a demanding and intellectually rigorous activity.

  Borrowing from Auden's poem The question,

    To ask the hard question is simple;


    But the answer

    Is hard …

  Should not academics relish the challenge of hard questions, such as those pertaining to standards?


  Adelman, C. (2008) Undergraduate grades: a more complex story than "inflation". In L.H. Hunt (ed), Grade inflation and academic standards. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pp.13-44. Attwood, R. (2008) Rise in proportion of firsts to 13% renews inflation debate. The Times Higher Education, 17 January.

  Bekhradnia, B. (2006) Demand for higher education to 2020. At (accessed 27 October 2008).

  Biggs, J. and Tang, C. (2007) Teaching for quality learning at university (3rd ed). Maidenhead: SRHE and Open University Press.

  Brennan, J., Duaso, A., Little, B., Callender, C. and van Dyck, R. (2005) Survey of higher education students' attitudes to debt and term-time working and their impact on attainment. London: Universities UK.

  Bridges, P., Cooper, A., Evanson, P., Haines, C., Jenkins, D., Scurry, D., Woolf, H. and Yorke, M. (2002) Coursework marks high, examination marks low: discuss. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 27 (1), pp.35-48.

  Johnson, V.E. (2003) Grade inflation: a crisis in college education. New York: Springer.

  Pascarella, E.T. and Terenzini, P.T. (2005) How college affects students: a third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  Simonite, V. (2003) The impact of coursework on degree classifications and the performance of individual students. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 28 (3), pp.459-70.

  Yorke, M. (2008) Grading student achievement: signals and shortcomings. Abingdon: Routledge.

  Yorke, M., Bridges, P., Woolf, H. et al. (2000) Mark distributions and marking practices in UK higher education. Active Learning in Higher Education 1 (1), pp.7-27.


  I am grateful to Harvey Woolf for comments on an earlier draft.


  HESA cannot accept responsibility for any inferences or conclusions derived from the data by third parties.

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