On 8 February 2019 (in less than two weeks), the period for universities to respond to the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment’s (UKSCQA) commissioned reports on the problem of “degree inflation” comes to an end.
Of the twenty-two consultation questions posed, only the last provides a clear opportunity for respondents to request that the reports address themselves, in a much more focused way than they currently do, to the wealth of research on the black and minority ethnic (BAME) attainment gap in higher education. It is not that the issue of BAME attainment is neglected entirely. Indeed, noting the potential for bias in the design of degree classification algorithms, one of the reports cautions its readers that “[a]ny change to degree algorithm practice must ensure that specific groups, especially those from a widening participation background, are not disadvantaged” (UUK et al, 2018; p. 33. See generally p. 33-38). However, the final consultation question opens the gate for much more: potentially it will enable a re-narration of the reports which draws upon recent decolonial theories of the university, such as those exemplified in Bhambra, Gebriel and Nisancioglu (2018) and Arday and Mirza (2018). In default of such a request from a significant proportion of respondents, institutional responses to the issue of degree inflation will almost certainly undermine efforts to address the BAME attainment gap.
Prospective respondents to the consultation process are directed toward two reports. The most substantial of the two is the product of a collaboration between Universities UK (UUK), Guild HE, and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which is titled Degree Classification: Transparent, Consistent and Fair Academic Standards. The second, which was commissioned by UUK on behalf of UKSCQA, is a supplement to the main report, titled the Drivers of Degree Classifications (Bachan, 2018). From the supplementary document we learn that in the period covered by the investigation into degree inflation, which spans the 2007/8-2016/17 academic years (Bachan, 2018, p. 8), “...pre-1992 universities awarded the highest proportion of upper degrees...” (Bachan, 2018: p. 10).
At first glance, such a finding would seem to direct attention to institutional heavy weights with a record of awarding first class and upper-second degree awards to a high percentage of their students, such as Imperial College in London, which, in terms of the “upward trend” (UUK et al, 2018: p.3) in degree classifications, “ ..tops the list at 45 per cent of their students being awarded a First...” (Richmond, 2018: p. 5). However, it very quickly transpires that it is not the universities that award higher degrees per se which threaten public confidence in the “...usefulness of the honours degree classification system for grading and differentiating student attainment” (UUK et al, 2018: p. 3), but those universities -predominantly those which attained university status post-1992, post-2003, and post-2012 - which are seen to carry the greater “...share of ‘unexplained’ grades...” (Bachan, 2018: p. 21). According to Bachan, a degree classification grade falls to be considered as a potentially inflating one when it “...cannot be explained by student quality and/or characteristics, or university expenditure on student and staff facilities and academic services...” (Bachan, 2018: p.6).
Although it is made clear that the number of “unexplained” degree grades have increased across all universities (Bachan, 2018, p. 20), both main and supplementary reports find that "..in general, pre-1992 universities exhibit the lowest level of “ unexplained increases and newer universities the highest” (Bachan, 2018, p. 20. See also UUK et al, 2018: p.14 who express their findings in similar terms). Richmond appears to look fondly upon a time before the rise of the post-1992/2003/2012 universities when "...in the mid 1990s there was no detectable ‘grade inflation’ at all...” (2018: p.4 and elaborated at p.12-13). To put the matter succinctly, the newer universities, where the majority of BAME students gain their degrees (see: Andrews, 2018: p.130; Holmwood, 2018, p. 47) award proportionality fewer higher degrees than their pre-1992 counterparts, but, on the basis of the criteria used by the report authors, the higher degrees that these newer universities have awarded have become suspect.
To most scholars of the colonial, alarm bells are set to chime whenever actions and decisions made within the spaces that are disproportionately inhabited by black and minority ethnic people are deemed to be inexplicable. It has been the task of such scholars to expose the racial biases underpinning criteria which seeks to establish norms of supposedly rational behaviour.
In the absence of a decolonial framework of analysis, readers of the UUK et al and Bachan reports can do little more than simply anticipate, with some disquiet, the likelihood that their findings will almost certainly result in “...academic practice and student study behaviours...” (UUK et al, 2018: p.12) of BAME academics and students being considered “...major determinants in the increasing proportion of upper degrees” (UUK et al, 2018: p. 12). Such a perception could very well result in BAME students and academics being made to bear the burden of inflationary degree award practices which are happening in those institutions who in fact award the greater share of higher degrees, but whose “explanations” behind the higher awards fit the framework of rationality which the relevant audit agencies have constructed.
There is much to be commended in the UUK et al and Bachan reports, as well as in a further report about degree grade inflation produced by the organisation, Reform (Richmond, 2018). Respondents will undoubtedly give credit to the authors for identifying strong correlations between tuition fee increases and grade inflation (e.g. Richmond, 2018: p.19, Bachan, 2018: p. 8).. Yet, the emphasis on “ changes in regulations, conventions and behaviours” (UUK,et al, 2018: p. 21), when assessing the key “area for further examination” (UUK et, 2018: p. 21) into the causes of degree inflation, rather than emphasis being placed on the structures and ideologies which guide degree award decision-making, is a striking feature of the reports..
If it is indeed the case that “...the increase in grades is a result of a system-wide dynamic where no single action is the cause of the increase; nor is there a ‘ silver-bullet’ solution” (UUK et al, 2018: p.3), then it is all the more to be regretted that a framework of analysis more sympathetic to the dynamic of racial disparity does not figure in any of the reports. It would be unwise to speculate too far on what specific insights such a framework would produce, but there is a strong possibility that questions which at first sight seem merely rhetorical and unimportant would have a better chance of their true import being recognised if posed to those whose primary field of research concerns how universities have produced and sustained racial discrimination and disadvantage. One such seemingly speculative and innocuous question was advanced by the author of the Reform report, who questions why “[g]iven how long grade inflation has been visible in HE, it has received... little political attention” (Richmond, 2018: p.19). No decolonial re-narration of any of the reports would promise an accurate, much less definitive, response to such a loaded question. However, no decolonial re-narration would fail to consider the potential relevance of the fact that it is now when the question of degree inflation is raised that statistics show a decline in the population of white students in UK universities (UUK et al 2018: p. 38). In short, a decolonial critique would not hesitate to confront the uncomfortable possibility that the question of degree inflation has become less politically sensitive partly because BAME “...groups have all increased in prevalence, with the proportion of white students falling by 4 percentage points” (UUK et al, 2008: p. 38).
To conclude, with so much emphasis in the reports on academic practice and student behaviours as constituting the underlying causes of potential degree inflation, it is likely (in the absence of an intervention that radically shifts the narrative) that institutions will respond by engineering superficial but highly visible changes to those practices and behaviours. In this effort, degree algorithm design will prove an easy target for reform, not least because the reports identify some areas of vulnerability in the design and application of degree algorithms, including, it must be said, their potential for racial bias (e.g. UUK et al, 2018: p. 33-38). If post-1992/2003/2012 institutions are pressured to adjust (with a view to correcting perceived degree inflationary results) the degree classifications processes which already produce proportionately fewer higher awards for their students than the numbers produced by pre-1992 universities, the outcome would almost certainly be a sharp and sudden increase in the BAME attainment gap. And all for want of a framework against which assessors can “read” the explanations behind what are almost certain to be perfectly defensible degree classification decisions.
Kehinde Andrews, “The Challenge for Black Studies in the Neoliberal University” in Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial, and Kerem Nisancioglu (eds.), Decolonising the University, Pluto Press, 2018, p. 129-145.
Jason Arday and Heidi Safia Mirza, Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Ray Bachan, The Drivers of Degree Classifications, Universities UK (on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assurance), November 2018.
Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial, and Kerem Nisancioglu (eds.), Decolonising the University, Pluto Press, 2018.
John Holmwood, “Race and the Neoliberal University: Lessons from the Public University” in Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial, and Kerem Nisancioglu (eds.), Decolonising the University, Pluto Press, 2018, p. 37-53.
Tom Richmond, A degree of uncertainty: An investigation into grade inflation in universities, Reform, June 2018.
Universities UK, GuildHE and Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, Degree Classification: Transparent, Consistent and Fair Academic Standards, November 2018.