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Universities and colleges face investigations over grade inflation – watchdog

Lord Wharton, chairman of the Office for Students (OfS), has warned against degree grade inflation (Chris Ison/PA)
Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

Universities and colleges could face more investigations over grade inflation after they have failed to take “sufficient action” on the issue, the chairman of England’s higher education watchdog has suggested.

Lord Wharton, chairman of the Office for Students (OfS), said there is a “risk” that if large numbers of students are handed top degrees it “could be seen to devalue the award”.

He told the Industry and Regulators Committee in the Lords that the regulator is looking at what they can do to take action over the “significant” grade inflation

Conservative peer Lord Wharton said: “One of the challenges has been, if I am truthful, I think with the sector is that obvious problems which have been raised with it over a long period of time they have failed to address.

“To give you an example of that – grade inflation.”

A report, released by the OfS in May last year, suggests that the proportion of first class degrees handed out in England has more than doubled in the last decade – from 15.7% in 2010-11 to 37.9% in 2020-21.

Highlighting the figures on Tuesday, Lord Wharton said: “This is a significant amount of grade inflation and more and more people are getting firsts.

“There may be very good reasons for that. We may have cohorts of much brighter students but there is also a risk that if everyone gets a first, no one gets a first. It could be seen to devalue the award in itself.

“Students quite like getting firsts, so in the short term individual students who are studying now might quite like their chances being enhanced. But it may well not be in their interest in the long term if it undermines the value of the thing they have earned and worked so hard for.”

In September last year, the OfS said the rates of students with top degrees at three universities and colleges, which have not been named, raised “potential concerns that require further scrutiny”.

On grade inflation, Lord Wharton said: “Having, to be frank, not taken sufficient action over a very long period of time, we are now looking at what we can do to take action in that space, including investigations.

“And including a new requirement to retain an appropriate selection, where appropriate, of graded work from students so that if we go into an institution and do an investigation and we find there is a problem the evidence is there on which we can build a regulatory case.”

In January, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) recorded a fall in the number of first class degrees awarded for the first time since records began.

Nearly a third (32%) of undergraduate degrees were awarded a first class honours classification in 2021/22, a fall from 36% the year before, Hesa said.