Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Fines for Firsts

Today's Guardian reports that in the UK, that the University watchdog (OfS) "threatens fines over grade inflation". This is as a consequence of the proportion of first class degrees increasing from 16% to 27% in six years. According to the article "84% of universities seeing significant unexplained increases in the number of first-class degrees awarded".

Below I have drawn a chart showing the average percentage of First Class Honours Degrees for 148 Universities across the UK showing the 16% to 27% increase:

Data Source: UK Office for Students (OfS)

The average increase is indeed dramatic - OfS describes it as "unexplained". There could be a wide variety of reasons for this unexplained increase. UK Universities have cited "more emphasis on the quality of teaching, alongside the fact that with higher tuition fees students are working harder to achieve higher grades". It could also be that students are smarter and that technology enhances their learning. The points race to get into University in Ireland, and no doubt elsewhere, hones exams skills in students as they are more prepared for exams. Today's students have more resources available to them than ever before. It could also be that universities and colleges are deliberately inflating grades - competition between third level institutes for students is greater than ever. I don't know if the number of first class degrees is counted in University rankings - but it they are, there is a strong case for leaving them out.

It should also be pointed out that an average grade of 70% or over is needed to achieve a first class honours at a third-level university. To achieve a H1 (maximum points) in the second-level Leaving Certificate, you need to get 90%.

I always feel that if a student is awarded a First - that they have earned it. One question I always ask myself when grading assignments, projects, and exams is "Is this a first class piece of work?" - if so, I'll consider a grade over 70%. It is hard to consistently get 70% over several modules and in continuous assessments plus exams. Only the exceptional students achieve this. I recall the astonishment at the fact that in my final year (1983) in Trinity - 3 out of 18 of us in my class got Firsts (sadly, this this not include me). The following year there was open questioning of grading when 6 out of about 22 students got Firsts. 

A First is a badge of honour that only a few students should achieve.

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