There was an interesting piece by Mike Ratcliffe on Wonkhe last week: Why my university is proud to be awarding fewer first class degrees. It deserves further discussion.
Mike was writing about Nottingham Trent University’s response to government and media concerns about the rising percentage of first class degrees being awarded across the higher education sector. He cites figures of 16% in 2011 rising to 29% in 2018.
I have blogged before about the moral panic over the increasing numbers of firsts. However, in a context where some employers overlook graduates without ‘good’ degrees, and universities are rewarded in the TEF for the high salaries earned by graduates, it is inevitable that this would have provided an incentive for universities to look for ways to uplift marks.
As Mike points out “the HE sector runs a criterion-based assessment system; firsts are not rationed according to a predetermined allocation, they are awarded for meeting the criteria…The grading ensures marks are based entirely on comparing the qualities of student work with associated written descriptors of assessment criteria.” And that is the whole point of the GBA system; it defines for students exactly what standards of work and academic practices they need to master to attain a specific grade. The learning outcomes are very clearly laid out, and the different levels of attainment exemplified with sample responses to assignments. This is good pedagogy. There should be no mystery about how to attain high marks, and students should benefit from excellent teaching and the kind of feedback that enables them to improve their work as they progress through their studies.
Grade-based assessment was introduced at Nottingham Trent around the time of the introduction of 9K tuition fees and there is even an explanatory video. If you extend the usable range of marks from 70 to 100 in an aggregate system, then obviously this will result in a larger number of higher awards being made. This was not an artefact; it was intentional, because, as was explained to staff at the time, they should be “leading students to a high end of level standard”. It was also a justified response to that perpetual urging from externals to use the top range of marks to distinguish excellent work from the good and very good. And for the reasons I have outlined above, it was defensible on pedagogical grounds.
Nottingham Trent University now says that it is proud to be awarding fewer first class degrees. I wonder how the students feel about this. If universities are supposed to publish a Degree Classification Statement of Intent which promises to “review and explain how final degree classifications are calculated” what, then, if those algorithms change between a student’s first and final years? Last year’s students appear to have been the subjects of a re-jigged algorithm which, instead of awarding a first to students who have at least half of their credits in the first class category, they must now have the majority. This will not have affected those students whose aggregate score is over 70%, but may have affected some of those who exhibited ‘exit velocity’ with an improved performance in their final year. This approach has reduced the number of firsts by 7.1%. But what about that injunction to reward ‘a high end of level standard’?
If you say you’re running a criterion-led system, and then try and curtail the resulting high scores with a revised algorithm, you risk this being seen as grade-based gerrymandering. And will students be reassured to learn that lecturers who have taught them will no longer be invited to speak up in support of a higher award if their aggregate marks happen to fall on the borderline? Mike writes that “the University has also removed the power of examination boards to make discretionary classification decisions for students on the classification borderline.” There hardly seems to be any point in having an exam board if the algorithm is accorded supremacy while personalized academic judgement is evacuated.
It is a shame that universities cannot summon the confidence to assert that improving teaching has been a priority and that, as a result, student achievement has been enhanced. It seems absurd to take pride in claiming the reverse. If only higher education was driven by principles of pedagogical soundness, not by political soundbites, it might be easier to win the confidence of students, staff and government.