Comment Box: Sam Gyimah misses the mark with ‘grade inflation’

More students achieving first class degrees is not a bad thing. At least, it shouldn’t be. With education standards in the UK generally improving and year-on-year more students getting into Britain’s world-class universities, should it not be a success story to have so many leave higher education with such a fantastic degree classification?

The fact of the matter is students today value their education more than ever before. With tuition fees at an all time high of £9,000 (£9,250 at universities like UEA), young people can expect to leave a typical undergraduate degree with nearly £30,000 of tuition debt. This doesn’t even include other living expenses such as the costs of rent, which are at an all time high in certain cities.

For those who went to university even a decade ago, the costs of tuition were more than a third less than what they are today. Students have no choice but to value their degrees and education, and the national rise in firsts is part of the shift in the mentality of students which also sees them drinking and going out less than previous generations.

In 2016 at UEA, 34 percent of graduates were awarded a first, a 12 percent increase on three years before. This, the university explained, was because UEA (like all universities) has been able to select from a range of better educated applicants than ever before, whilst investing more money on UEA and its services. It was not, as Sam Gyimah might fear, universities being too liberal with giving away top marks.

A first is still a first, and just because more people are achieving them does not mean they are worth less.

What’s most unbelievable to me is the government’s idea to punish universities which, apparently being somehow too successful in educating their students, have awarded more firsts than usual. Sure, we need parity across the education sector and in the UK’s universities, but the government’s current idea seems only more exclusionary than anything.

Were there, say, an exact cap on the percentage of firsts a particular university could give out, then its likely students whose work might normally have been considered first class quality will miss the mark because of an arbitrary quota, potentially at the expense of later life opportunities.

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January 2022
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