Universities vow to tackle pandemic grade inflation

England’s universities have taken a vow to reverse pandemic grade inflation in the first and 2.1 degree ranges.

In a first of its kind statement Universities UK (UUK) and GuildHE members have committed to return to pre-pandemic levels of ‘upper’ degree classification by 2023.

The pandemic caused unique circumstances to make it difficult for students to get a first or 2.1 undergraduate degree, so there were measures to make sure they weren’t unfairly disadvantageed.

The percentage of students who have achieved one of the highest degrees has risen from 63 percent in 2016-17 to 82% in 2019-20.


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While the percentage of firsts or 2:1s remained constant from 2016 to 2019, this proportion increased by six percent across 2019-20. The firsts climbed from 28 to 35% in degrees classifications.

Today’s statement recognises that grade inflation which cannot be explained by the developments in teaching and learning that combined with students’ hard work to improve results in the prior decade, risk undermining student, employer and public confidence in the system.

Universities have stated that they will use 2019’s pre-pandemic year as a benchmark. This was when universities took proactive action to preserve the value and increase the number of students who were awarded higher degrees.

Members of UUK and GuildHE will publish degree outcomes statements by the end 2022. These statements will outline actions to return to pre-pandemic levels. The outcome statements, which will also include a review of progress against actions previously committed to, will be published on the UUK website with links to each institution’s statement as an effective list of signatories.

UUK/GuildHE will evaluate progress and provide updates in the first half of 2023.

Higher education minister Michelle Donelan said: “I’m delighted to have worked with Universities UK and GuildHE on this landmark statement – the first time ever that universities have made a commitment of this nature.

“Just as the government is restoring pre-pandemic grading at GCSE and A-Level by 2023, today’s statement will ensure that universities are also eliminating the grade inflation that occurred over the pandemic, and on the same timetable. We are working together to restore high standards in our education system.

“Hardworking students deserve to know that earning a first or upper second really counts and that it carries weight with employers – who in turn should be able to trust in the high value and rigorous assessment of university courses.”

Universities will also report on progress to their governing bodies.

The issue of grade inflation is not just a problem at universities. Last month the House of Commons public accounts committee complained that the Department of Education “failed to adequately assess the current and future financial impacts” of the “substantial grade inflation” that resulted from local assessment in place of A-level exams during the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant more students were able to take up places at high-tariff providers, and many medium- and low-tariff and specialist providers were undersubscribed.

Schools were warned to expect a decline in grades after the pandemic-era surges.