There are so many mixed messages coming from government about Higher Education that it seems clear that there is no clear strategy at all, just a handful of reactions to perceived problems. Cambridge’s response to TEF highlights the clear errors in government proposals to ‘measure’ teaching excellence; it is ludicrous to think that some subjects at Cambridge might be awarded TEF ‘silver’ because students are smart enough to boycott the NSS. And the papers over the weekend were full of Damian Hinds, gnashing his teeth over the number of firsts awarded in Universities. More distraction and reaction, rather than strategy. Students may be getting Firsts than ever before, but this is not necessarily a crisis of ‘grade inflation.’ In fact, it is a crisis of misunderstanding by government about how universities have changed their teaching model – often for the better – in response to the never-ending barrage of bright ideas put forward by a long list of Universities Ministers desperate to get up the political ladder.
When I started university in 1993, I was the first of my family to attend university. I was 17. I had no idea what university was about, really. For each of my classes I received a reading list of around 200 items, alphabetized by author surname; there were no further instructions about what to read for each session. The outline of each module was vague: a four page outline of broadly what subjects would be covered in each week. Often lecturers and professors would stray away from these broad topics. One of my lecturers – a very highly regarded academic in his field – would routinely come into the lecture theatre, sit down, and read verbatim from the folder of notes he had used for the same class for at least 10 years. Individual tutorials were a thing to be feared: students were viewed as a necessary evil, but office hours were certainly an interruption from the ‘real’ work of most academics on campus.
I do not think that my experience differs greatly from that of most of my pre-internet generation. I graduated in 1997 with a first class in both History and French: my recollection is that two Firsts were awarded that year in Arts, out of a cohort of several hundred. I had taken a year off before my final year to teach English in northern France, and the point of university clicked for me that year. What I know for sure is that many of my classmates were smarter than me, and could have achieved first class grades. Why did they not? Some of the reason is that they were not supported to do so. There were no grade descriptors. There were no Personal Tutors who could explain the mystery of university to a naive and lost student. There were three mental health counselors for the whole university, and appointments were seen as a last resort. Exams were at the end of the year, and in three weeks of pressure, students were examined on material that they had learned in all three terms. No wonder first class grades were rare.
In the past 15 years or so of an academic career teaching in large and small universities, elite and non-elite in the UK and Ireland, I have seen a major shift in the way that teaching is undertaken. It is absolutely true that more students are being awarded first class grades for their university work. But this is not necessarily a negative thing, although it is often reported as such in the many reports that come out about grade inflation. In reality, this is the inevitable result of the stellar work in curriculum reform, in student support, and in teaching methods, that has been undertaken in universities over the past 10 years.
I hope students today are much more informed about how university works than I was. They should be. They have lots of pre-entry information about universities. They are offered significant support on writing and time management in the first year, they are given very detailed and prioritized reading lists and module outlines – now all online for accessibility and interaction. They know they are able to ask questions if they don’t understand, and to book individual tutorials to discuss their work. There are dedicated student support teams – academic, mental health, learning supports – on campus to act as a safety net for students who are struggling. Academic colleagues work harder to support students who, 15 years ago, might have failed out in first or second year. Lecturers are encouraged to reflect on their teaching formally and informally, and are given incentives to do so. Many undertake formal teaching qualifications. Pedagogy is becoming more and more important, even in a regulatory environment that still rewards research over teaching innovation. If half my class were failing, for example, I would question the efficacy of my teaching practice.
The bottom line is that political panic over grade inflation is a manufactured crisis. Many more students are getting higher grades, but they have never been so carefully supported to do so. As competition for student numbers steps up, Russell group universities are catching up on the good practices that have been developed in teaching-focused universities. So, it should not be a surprise to anybody that the number of first class grades has risen. We equip our students with the resources and skills to excel in ways that were reserved only for the exceptionally clued-in when I was a student. Demonizing this as ‘grade inflation’ is deeply unhelpful. Seeking a return to a time when only a small handful of firsts were awarded is retrograde.
We should absolutely seek to uphold academic standards. But we should also not devalue the excellent work many universities do to ensure that their students can do their best work. For some, their best is a 2.2. For others, their best is a First. It is great to see that more students are capable of reaching that standard than ever before. This is something to be celebrated, not penalized.