On Campus

Anarchy in the U.K.

British university watchdog criticizes "meaningless" degrees; "rotten" grade inflation

Concerns over the quality of education and grade inflation in the U.K. have the head of the country’s educational-standards body defending the “robust” higher-education system that serves British students. But it was only a week ago that Peter Williams, the chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, was himself blasting many aspects of British education.

Williams was widely quoted in British media last week as saying that the grading system in the U.K. is “rotten” and “unreliable”; that second- and third-class degrees have become “meaningless”; and that international students at British schools have come to expect that “if they pay their fees, they will get a degree.” He also suggested that some schools are becoming overly dependent on foreign students.

Yesterday, Williams wrote an op-ed in the Guardian that stepped back from those earlier comments. He defended the overall quality of the British university system while acknowledging that there were several areas for improvement, including the degree-granting structure and recruitment of international students.

Williams wrote that the university system has adapted to globalization and is now “less homogeneous” than in the past. With so many students graduating with increasingly diverse degrees, the system can’t sustain itself. William recommended a re-examination of the degree structure. He also said that as a means of accommodating international students who may not speak or write English as fluently as many Britons, the government should explore language training.

In the U.K., the classification system is as follows: First-class honours degrees (Firsts) are the highest achievement, followed by upper second-class honours (2:1), lower second-class honours (2:2), third-class honours, and ordinary (or pass) degrees.

As evidence of grade inflation, the Telegraph reported that last year, nearly two-thirds of students graduated with first- or second- class degrees. Only 45 per cent achieved the same mark in 1996.

That trend has some in Britain questioning the legitimacy of students’ achievements. Schools are being accused of inflating grades as a way to, as the BBC wrote, “improve the public image of universities and to make them more attractive to applicants”.

A confidential e-mail that surfaced earlier this week only fuelled the fire.

The BBC obtained an email sent several months ago by the academic standards manager at Manchester Metropolitan University, asking computing and mathematics staff to consider raising student grades.

“We do not award as many Firsts and 2.1s as other comparable institutions so there is an understandable desire to increase the proportion of such awards,” read the email. “Please bear this in mind when setting your second and final year assessments, especially the latter.”

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