More people than ever are getting first-class degrees, so are they still as valuable?
As The Glasgow Guardian addressed in an article last month, there are currently more students gaining first-class degrees in the UK than ever before. Indeed, 26% of graduates achieved a first class degree in the last academic year, up from 18% in 2012-2013. In response, the government has initiated plans to crack down on grade inflation in order to combat the perception that degree qualifications are decreasing in value, as higher grades appear to become the norm. One of the main schemes was the introduction in 2017 of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) that awards universities a Gold, Silver or Bronze based on a range of criteria, including exponential grade inflation. The panel may downgrade a university’s ranking if they deem the number of firsts handed out to be excessive. So why has there been such a significant increase in the number of first-class degrees awarded in the last decade? Is it true that top marks are losing their value? And, put simply, are our degrees still worth it?
One of the crucial factors influencing the growing number of students achieving top results is the immense pressure placed on markers to compete in higher education league tables. The survey culture of university management has left many academics feeling more like salespeople than educators, as countless go to extreme measures to ensure successful results that will both enhance student satisfaction ratings, and entice future cohorts to select their institution over others with less impressive statistics. Considering the fact that one third of UK universities and colleges awarded a first for 25% of degrees granted in 2015-16 (four times as many as in 2010-11), it would appear senior management are encouraging grade boosts. Given the increasingly competitive nature of further education, markers may well err on the side of generosity in the attempt to ensure the good ranking of their university, their department, and, in turn, even their own personal job security.
However, this pressure on markers to produce results is not simply imposed from the top down. Fee-paying students who pay upwards of £9,250 – £17,000 if they are international – in yearly tuition are demanding better results than perhaps the students of twenty years ago were. The vast majority cannot afford for such a huge financial investment to backfire. Students are assuming the role of customers; therefore, it is unsurprising that universities are handing out higher grades at such an astounding rate in attempts to compete with their market opponents. Grade inflation is good business for universities.
Increasingly steep tuition fees, along with the accompanying economic worry of debts and overdrafts, have also helped to develop another – often overlooked – factor leading to grade inflation: students are simply working harder. As the financial stakes of undertaking a degree increase, plus the rates of graduate unemployment inspire alarm, it is not that bold a claim to suggest that the growth in first class degrees correlates to the diligence of today’s students. It is now an economic necessity for us to secure impressive grades. In addition, as more students apply to university every year, the value of a degree appears diluted. Students must secure exceptional results if they wish to compete with other degree-holders in the current economic-political climate. With one in three English 18-year-olds placed on degree courses through UCAS last year, according to data published by the admissions service, along with around one in four Scottish students of the same age, more graduates are entering the job market than ever before. Securing a first-class degree from a reputable institution appears increasingly necessary to secure high-earning work, as the job hierarchy begins to establish itself on degree standard rather than simpler graduate/non-graduate distinctions.
Finally, one issue within this debate that needs addressing is the popular belief that the worth of a university education is wholly equivalent to the class of degree achieved in the last year of study, or simply a place within a league table. Whilst academic success should be a top priority for any student, it is close-minded to think that the sole worth of a university experience equates to a blot of ink on paper at the end of your university career. A plaque above the Debates Chamber in the GUU reads: “While The University gives you your degree, The Union gives you your education.” Now whether or not you are involved in the union is unimportant, as the sentiment behind the statement remains applicable to any student. Life at university offers you so much more than a qualification: it also offers opportunities and connections that shape and benefit you along the way, which cannot be quantitatively expressed. By all means strive for excellence, but remember that your degree is only as valuable as you decide to make it.