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Grade inflation and contextualised admissions to university are stirring up a wasp’s nest.


This week saw further political pressure exerted upon universities regarding so called ‘grade inflation’. Much of the criticism is poorly thought through and fails to recognise that many students have for a long time improved their attainment between school and university. This comes as no surprise to most university academics who teach. Increasing the numbers of students admitted to our universities inevitably involves admitting those with lower A-Level grades. That a significant number then ‘raise their game’ at university to achieve good degree results should be considered as a signal to the elite universities to start accepting more contextualised admissions. A broader assessment of students that takes into account the context of their earlier education and circumstances should be expanded across the whole system.


An article in the Times earlier this week (University grades: Firsts for quarter of students with lowest A levels) managed to stir up a veritable 'wasp’s nest' of indignation across social media. The general tone of the article was that too many students with lower A-Level grades were being awarded first class degrees in our universities. This followed on from the increasingly febrile political debate regarding so-called ‘grade inflation’ and a stark warning from the Education Secretary in March that “I expect the Office for Students – when they have their full range of powers – to challenge those institutions that record an unjustifiable rise in the proportion of top degrees being awarded.”

The Times discovered that more than 2,000 students who had achieved three D grades or lower ended up being awarded a first at university. Forty universities awarded firsts to at least a quarter of those with the lowest A-level grades. But there was nothing new in the story since it describes a general trend that has been established for many years. Indeed, those using Twitter immediately buzzed around angrily with stories of how they had low-grade A-Levels years ago but went on to PhDs and professorial positions through their efforts. Some of the postings have nasty stings in their tails for government to reflect upon.

The logical consequences.


Rumours that the Augar report will recommend that student loans will be offered only to students with grades DDD and above surfaced late last year in a leak to the Sunday Times (Less than three Ds at A‑level? Then no student loan). The latest Times article had simply made a link between that issue and the complaints of rising grade inflation. The logical outcome would be that the number of first degrees awarded could be limited at institutions according to their A-Level grades at intake. This would make A-Level grades the de facto predictor of degree outcomes by default at a time when many graduate employers, such as Ernst Young have seen this as less of a predictor of talent going back several years. This would be a tragic mistake that could further intensify the admissions ‘war’ that has already seen a rise in unconditional offers as a pre-emptive tactic of some universities (explored very well last week in the House of Commons Briefing Paper 8538, 10 April 2019 ‘The review of university admissions’). Yet many staff in universities already know that A-Level grades can in many cases be a poor predictor of final degree outcomes. This phenomenon should be considered for individuals more fully in the context of seeking to find better entry criteria to universities.

The case for contextual admission criteria.

This week also saw the first research briefing from the 'Durham University Evidence Centre for Education' (DECE). Their overview paper ‘Using contextualised admissions to widen access to higher education: a guide to the evidence base’ is an excellent and very timely start to the new series. The case for considering ‘contextualised admissions’ to universities is inexorable as a way of “achieving fairer as well as wider access”. DECE provide evidence that achieving parity of entry from the five participation POLAR quintiles (from 1- low participation neighbourhoods to 5- high participation neighbourhoods) will take until 2038 at the current slow rate of progress (TEFS earlier indicated that this could be as far away as 2204 with ‘OfS progress on widening participation: Reserve your seat now for 2204AD’).

Whatever the projection, there is no doubt that reducing this gap sooner will take more radical action. The wide gap in attainment across different groups of students, from those on free school meals to those educated at private schools, leads to a suggestion that the highest attaining students from each group should be considered rather than their raw A-Level grades. The DECE conclusion is that “This evidence clearly indicates that a contextualised approach to admissions, involving the reduction of academic entry requirements for disadvantaged learners, is arithmetically necessary in order to achieve wider access to higher education for disadvantaged students (unless or until these patterns of attainment change).” However, this is also admitting defeat and accepts that social inequalities are inevitable and will persist. Instead, the recommendations should be seen as an interim contingency. Ultimately changing the patterns of attainment should be the final goal through enhancing the social conditions and education for those most disadvantaged.

The DECE paper demonstrates well that A-level grades broadly relate to final degree outcomes in many cases. Higher A-Level grades lead to a greater probability of completing a degree and doing so with a first-class outcome. The surprise is that there is also a considerable probability that some with very low A-Level results will also achieve a first-class degree. This lies at the root of the so-called ‘grade inflation’ conundrum that the government is so exercised about. However, the government should be much more circumspect in their criticism since they encouraged the boom in university access in the first place. This inevitably led to more students with lower grades progressing and it is no surprise to university academics that they reached their real potential in many cases.

Some of the causes of grade inflation were also discussed in TEFS last year with
'REF, TEF and Bobtail and a 'Bill of Rights': Analysing the Government's response to the TEF consultation' where a case was made with data to illustrate that standards are being adhered to in general across institutions as illustrated again here in Figure 2 from that posting that considered a comparison between tariff point entry standards of universities with the proportion and numbers of degree classes awarded.

This further reinforces the data and conclusions of the DECE report.


Why A-level grades might not always predict outcomes at university.


In my experience, when teaching hundreds of first-year students for many years, I found that there are many different factors at play. This is because the various contexts of earlier education are of paramount importance. Some students become better motivated to work when released from the restrictions they experienced at school. But for others, their school has prepared them well. An academic environment that is more open-ended holds no fear for many and they lap it up willingly as a second chance. Regardless of relative social advantages or disadvantages, those that achieved the highest grades at school tended to replicate that at university in most cases. This appears to be simply because they do well in examinations due to a genuine understanding of the subject. They have a high potential and are unhindered in reaching their potential.

On the contrary, some with inconsistent schooling and disadvantaged backgrounds attain lower school grades that are well below their full potential. Lower grades reflect many different factors aside from the student’s ability. These include poor family circumstances, sharing rooms with siblings in cramped housing to simply responding badly to an ‘education’ that hitherto concentrated on preparing for examinations. For them, the university provides a chance to regain some ground.

Unfortunately, there are also some with considerable social advantages that attain A-Level grades that subsequently appear to exceed what their potential should be. This is cruelly exposed at university as they begin to flounder when teaching is less rote learning and more rigorously conceptual. Many schools, including independent ones, react to pressures to succeed by placing almost all of the emphasis on examinations and students passing them. Add to this the relentless tutoring to achieve better grades and the result is a student who asks at university “Do I need to know this?” or “Is this in the exam?” They expect to be ‘taught’ to the exam only as they have been conditioned to setting their only goal as passing an exam. The uncertainty of finding out that this is not the point of education at a high level can be a major challenge that they are often not prepared for. First-year teaching at university has to re-adjust this expectation and try to remove the fear of examinations. I told students that the ‘exam’ itself is not so much a test of them but an “opportunity to show us what they have learned and understand of the subject”. My strong opinion is that first year examinations should never count towards their final degree grade but offer a chance to adjust to the self-motivated educational environment.

What can be done on standards?

If there is a genuine concern about so-called ‘degree inflation’ and standards, then the first port of call should be the effectiveness and quality of the external examination process. This might be explored more and improved if necessary. There is no logical basis for imposing a quota of degree classes on the basis of entry grades. Instead, a university must always defend its standards with independent review and scrutiny by its external examiners. The fact that Advance HE (formally the Higher education Academy) have made considerable inroads recently on this matter (see ‘1200 external examiners trained so far: The Degree Standards project.’ 19th January 2019) should be highlighted more. But Advance HE should also aim to become fully independent of the Universities and be allowed to extend its powers to overseeing even more rigorous examining and assessment of the various curricula alongside professional bodies.

What can be done on access?

The issue of how to decide who goes to university has been around for a very long time. Back in 2004 under a very different government, a review by the Admissions to Higher Education Steering Group considered various options (see ‘Fair admissions to higher education: recommendations for good practice.’). As discussed in the DECE report, it recognised that “equal examination grades do not necessarily represent equal potential” and that “it is fair and appropriate to consider contextual factors as well as formal educational achievement, given the variation in learners’ opportunities and circumstances”. Given this observation, it is astounding that little has been done.

As recently as February of this year, the Sutton Trust reaffirmed its commitment to a contextualised admissions process. With ‘Moving the Dial on Contextual Admissions’ it stressed that there is little incentive for universities to change and that “Use of A-Level results of students before they have even entered university is a deeply flawed measure of quality.” These are strong words and you can read more of their detailed report ‘Admissions in Context: The use of contextual information by leading universities’ that shows the extent to which thirty leading universities already use contextualise admissions data.

In 2004, the Higher Education Steering Group also looked at alternatives. This included consideration of additional tests such as the USA based SAT (originating in 1926 and first called the ‘Scholastic Aptitude Test’) that “may help to uncover hidden talent”. Indeed the Sutton Trust carried out a rigorous comparison between the SAT and A-Levels in 2001 in ‘A Pilot of Aptitude Testing for University Entrance’ with tantalising conclusions. Although there was a general correlation evident in the comparison of A-Level grades and SAT score, the extent of ‘scatter’ across those from low-achieving, high-achieving and independent schools was an alarming feature of the data. A significant number of students in low-achieving schools had high SAT scores and yet achieved very low A-Level scores. That some of these might then thrive at university, when given some fair resources and a chance, should surely come as no surprise.

The SAT itself has been changed many times over the years and was reformed again in 2016. Currently, the final score is determined by a combination of reading, writing and a maths test with an optional essay. It is designed to eliminate rote learning as much as possible. However, it is clear that a very sound use of English is necessary, even to understand some of the maths questions. This means that it remains inherently socially biased towards those with a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of English that they could acquire through tutoring or a better learning environment at home. A student would be well advised to seek advice and practice to match the high standards that have been set (you can see example questions at the USA College Board www site).

Students in the UK considering university must already be aware that many courses do set additional tests on a similar basis. UCAS lists a plethora of these its www site at ‘Admissions Tests’. The idea that A-Levels alone are a good measure is frankly declining with the further expansion of such tests. Perhaps it is time to consider adding a general SAT like assessment system in the UK. However, this should be designed to be a less socially biased and a more reasoning based challenge. Indeed many universities in the USA combine the SAT with the high school ‘Grade Point Average’ to reach a conclusion’

Where can ‘disadvantaged students’ be found?

The more recent innovation of using the home postcodes of students to allocate them to one of five quintiles using the POLAR (Participation of Local Areas) methodology was critically discussed by TEFS over a year ago with 'Flying over the UK on a POLAR expedition. The distant cracks in university access are widening.' This approach is convenient for universities that only have to look for students from the right postcodes to create the illusion of widening access. It has therefore attracted some criticism in that it looks at participation by area and not individuals and their very personal and actual disadvantage. Indeed, some observers mix up the idea of disadvantage with POLAR quintile areas where disadvantage is only assumed by association.

In contrast, the recent DECE paper demolishes this methodology once and for all by considering the distribution of students on free school meals coming from POLAR quintile areas. Those on free school meals are not all clustered in the POLAR 1 areas of lowest participation.  The result is a high risk of “false negatives: individuals identified as not disadvantaged because they do not live in disadvantaged areas who are in fact disadvantaged”. Also that there will inevitably be a significant number of “false positives: individuals identified as disadvantaged because they live in an area where disadvantage is common but who are not themselves disadvantaged.” The conclusion is that a combination of measures should be applied and this should lean more heavily toward the individual circumstances and not simply the postcode allocation. 


The last word.
Although not an official response, the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Chris Skidmore reacted quickly to the Twitter debate that surrounded the DECE paper with a clear message as illustrated. Maybe there’s hope of sensible reform yet.


Additional note: One of the authors of the DECE report commented upon above, Vikki Boliver who is the Director of Research and Deputy Head of Sociology at Durham University, is speaking at the Office for Students ‘Insight event: fairer access and participation’ in London on the 1st May. Although now full, it can be seen via the OfS YouTube site. Hopefully, Chris Skidmore will take advantage of this opportunity.


Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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