A new report from the UK’s Office for Students finds 34% of Staffordshire University students now get ‘first class’ for their final degree classification. At nearby Keele it’s 27.8%. A little further away, at the nearly-closed MMU Crewe campus it’s 32.3%.
The Mail reports…
“The Department for Education has now said that universities have been given a ‘stark warning'” on this grade inflation.
Of course these are aggregate percentages per institution. To really make sense of things you’d need to see it all broken down by degree area and weighted by the comparative stringency of the admissions policy for that degree area. But perhaps such figures are already posted on each degree’s recruitment page, these days, and I’m just unaware of that. Though I don’t see such things on a sample degree page at Keele, just a vapid ‘student satisfaction’ number.
For those readers of this blog who have little contact with education, I should point out that 27-34% is highly abnormal. The true figure should be about 8-12%, even accounting for a slight general up-skilling in students when balanced against the current state of secondary education.
In the old days before about 1996, back when ‘a first was a first’, if you had generally high-quality recruitment onto a degree, and had the usual moderate drop-out from the course at the end of the first-year, then at the end of a three-year degree you should expect no more than about four first-class degrees. That would be in a final-year class of around 40 students. 8 to 10% getting firsts is about right, and reflects the essentially fixed distribution of such abilities in the degree-capable population.
It used to be casually assumed that it was just duffers such as Wolverhampton University that had this grade-inflation problem. But the curious uniformity of the rises is now fully revealed, across everyone from Wolverhampton all the way up to Durham. This suggests to me that it’s not only some occasional institutional laxity or management-driven rankings-pressure on lecturers that’s at the root of the problem. The Office for Students finds a big chunk of this widespread rise to be simply “unexplained”, despite their casting around for suggestions from those on the ground.
One thus wonders what part the take-home essay and coursework has to play, as that must increasingly enable the easy use of informal and online ‘essay-writing services’ and other more undetectable methods such as translation-plagiarism for final dissertations. This suspicion of outright cheating seems at first glance to be backed up by a government comment, found in the media stories on the new report, that…
According to Education Secretary Damian Hinds, this increase is probably the result of “unfair practices”.
One might ask if these “unfair practices” happen at the bottom of the ability range, and thus (as a knock-on effect) they encourage university administrators to re-shape grade curves and thus make things easier at the top as well. Or perhaps the cheating is happening among marginal 2:1 students, who try to play the system with a few cheating third-year essays and a final dissertation in order to get a first. Or it may be a mix of both pressures.
If it’s mostly due to largely undetectable ‘contract-essay cheating’ then simply ‘toughening up the marking’ will have little impact. The essay-mills will scale accordingly. One way to get around the problem might then be to bring back sit-down exams. On my undergraduate degree, each year we had regular sit-down timed exams in large classrooms and halls, giving hand-written answers to a previously unseen sheet of exam questions. Something which one would almost certainly not encounter today as an undergraduate. We had the expected number of firsts — three in a class of about 40, and I still have a photocopy of the final noticeboard sheet that announced the final grades for the class.
End-of-year exams would pose certain organisational and logistics hurdles, given the sheer number of students today. It would also have to be introduced uniformly across all courses, or students seeking ‘easy’ choices would skew toward no-exam universities and a two-tier system would develop overnight. If done on a huge sports-hall scale there might also be a slight problem with ‘impersonation’ cheating, i.e.: where Dull Bill’s bright cousin turns up to take his written exam, pretending to be Bill. But if end-of-module exams were done on a small per-class basis and supervised by the class tutors in the usual classroom, then there would be no chance for that to happen.
There are likely to be emerging technical possibilities to prevent cheating. I don’t read the trade newspapers these days but, off the top of my head, I imagine that one might run timed date-limited exams online, with retina-scans enforcing identity, though that’s probably not ideal for a range of reasons. One of the best options might be to build an algorithmic ‘fingerprint’ of the student’s writing style and research-source types, from age 14 onward, which would flag up any coursework likely to have been written by someone else. By ‘research-source types’ I mean that if the quantity and range of sources for an essay suddenly expands, either Dull Bill just got really unexpectedly good at finding and reading research sources to pinpoint excellent supporting quotes, or else the essay may actually have been written by Dull Bill’s bright cousin. One of the problems here is that essay-writing services may ask to be sent three of your past essays, and then have an A.I. that re-shapes their cheating essay to conform to your personal style.
A new first* classification might also be a fix for the problem, although that would also inevitably become corrupted over time if the underlying problems were not fixed.
One very robust check on cheating would be if all job interviews for recent graduates were required, by law, to include a written sit-down exam component and basic intelligence test via an accredited test-centre. The centres would be completely independent from the educational system, under the control of industry and strictly monitored. In fact, given the recent news on degrees, I’d be surprised if the bigger employers didn’t already have something like that and are now considering rolling it out as a commercial product for their suppliers and other SMEs.