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Explaining "unexplained" grade inflation in the UK's universities

This project will empirically test competing explanations for grade inflation in UK Higher Education.

Project status

In progress


26 Jun 2023 to 25 Dec 2024

The UK's higher education (HE) sector has recently come under much criticism in public debate and from policymakers over grade inflation. According to the Office for Students (2019), 29% of students obtained a first-class honours degree in 2018, up from 16% in 2011. Comparing this rise with changes in students' prior attainment, the authors conclude that increases in top grades are "unexplained" for three-quarters of universities.

The observed grade inflation has coincided with two developments: (i) HE expansion, and (ii) increases in tuition fees. Both developments were Government initiatives to meet growing demand for HE whilst funding it by tuition fee income. The Government also encouraged competition among universities in attracting more students.

Consequently, the cause of grade inflation is widely believed to be the artificial lowering of grading standards by universities in competition for students and, thus, tuition income. The over 50% increase in 'good' degrees among students with the A-level entry qualifications of DDD or below seems impossible to explain by anything but opportunistic grade inflation. This opinion is shared by the Government, which issued stark warnings to universities against "unfair practices" and proposed interventions aimed at restoring the value of grades.

In this project, we contrast this popular explanation for grade inflation with an alternative explanation that recognises the role of lecturers as educators. We argue that the cause of grade inflation may lie in the expansion of HE, which brought in more students from the lower end of the ability spectrum, while acknowledging that the approach to teaching is not constant but depends on the composition and needs of a class. Lecturers may have made their teaching and, accordingly, grading standards more accessible for more numerous weaker students with implications for grade inflation. These adjustments are not opportunistic and artificial but made for the good cause of facilitating learning.

We will empirically test these two competing explanations of grade inflation using data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. The explanations make different predictions about grade inflation within a university. If grade inflation is driven by university administrations, then it should take place across all the departments of a university. However, if grade inflation is driven by lecturers' adjustments of teaching standards, then it should take place only in those departments that attracted a larger number of less able students. Our findings on the causes of grade inflation will be important for policy responses. If the popular explanation is true, then policymakers need to clamp down on the opportunistic behaviour of universities and implement policies to restore standards. If the alternative explanation finds support, then such a response would be unnecessary and potentially damaging to the sector.

Project team