We hear it all of the time. Exams are getting easier, and standards are slipping. Degrees are not what they once were – everyone leaves with a good degree these days. But is this belief actually backed up by reality?

University grades are improving – fact. Statistics for all British universities show that, over the past decade, the proportion of students gaining a first class degree has nearly doubled, from 11% in 2003-4 to 19% in 2012-13. The proportion of students attaining a 2.1 has also increased. Research at Lancaster University’s School of Management indicates that this simply reflects the rising quality of A-level students. Less generous people believe that this may be proof of “dishonesty”, as universities chase league table recognition.

The Lancaster study concluded that signs of a more lenient marking system could be observed in top universities, which were 8% more likely to award higher degrees.

Those who feel that Universities are unfairly awarding grades note that academics can feel pressured to do so, in an effort to raise prestige and improve the employment prospects of their graduates. Some lecturers report feeling pressured by having to meet minimum targets for degree classifications. Others claim that university staff is penalised when student numbers fall.

Despite these assertions, it could be argued that the academic world has changed vastly over the last five decades, with undergraduates under more pressure than ever to stand out from their colleagues through the achievement of excellent grades. The number of unemployed in Britain has fallen by 125,000 recently. The drop is promising, yet some 2.34 million people are still jobless. Moreover, average earnings have increased by a mere 1.1% in the year to December, and there has been little change in the percentages of people classed as “economically inactive”.

Tough times foster a more competitive spirit; students these days are much more likely to view University as a means to employment or a lucrative salary, than in the past, when many students pursued a degree to broaden their knowledge base or delve more profoundly into their desired subject matter. In this sense, it could be argued that if grades have risen, it is because there are more students making a greater effort to prove their worth. One should also bear in mind that university fees are often very difficult to come by; fees can amount to £9000 on fees, placing much stronger pressure on students.

Moreover, it can be said that it isn’t so easy for lecturers to inflate grades, since in many universities, exam papers are checked by external examiners from other institutions, to make sure that standards remain consistent. If these examiners deem evaluations too easy or too challenging, they request that these be changed as appropriate.

Another reason why grading is different, is the method of assessment. In the past, a student’s marks depended almost entirely based on the outcome of exams, which often lasted for several days. Today, most universities view tertiary education as both a place in which higher-order or ‘critical thinking’ should be fostered. Critical thinking encourages students to do more than learn facts; it helps them learn the value of connecting ideas and subjects, and of questioning what seems ‘immediately obvious’.

University assessment often includes practical work (such as lab work or problem solving assignments and projects). These methods enable students to impress lecturers not just with their theoretical knowledge, but also with their vision and creativity. Varied forms of assessment play to different strengths, makes for a fairer marking system, since written exams lean heavily in favour of those with a strength in written expression. In group work and projects-based assessment, qualities like leadership, analytical thinking and initiative can be given the value they deserve.

Another big change between past and present is that students these days are often allowed to re-sit for exams to improve their results. This arguably shows off a student’s true efforts in a much fairer fashion, since everyone can have a bad day or be let down by a bad case of nerves or anxiety. Indeed, it could be said that merely knowing they will have a second chance takes the pressure off students, enabling them to perform much better the first time around. Some lecturers allow their students to see exam questions beforehand, or do ‘open book exams’. Other lecturers make past exams available. In this way, less importance is placed on rote learning and more on analytical skills.

The newfound importance of technology has likewise had an undoubtedly positive effect on academic life. Technology allows students to access useful material from a plethora of sources much more conveniently and speedily. The advent of social circles such as groups and forums have likewise encouraged both the sharing of useful material and healthy discussion and debate on key concepts. No longer does an excellent essay depend upon being the first person to borrow a useful book or article.

It should be noted that the Lancaster study does not adequately answer the question, as only 50% of university students have A-levels; many enter via further education colleges.

The University of Salford’s Vice-Chancellor, Martin Hall, argues that the solution lies in providing students (and prospective employers) with thorough transcripts of everything students have completed at university, so they can glean whether or not the candidate is truly the right person for the job. Universities should therefore work on using technology to record completed work in a suitable format for prospective employers.

An interesting topic, I am sure you will agree. If you have anything to share about your experiences at University, and whether you think that better degrees are easier to get these days, please feel free to add a comment below.




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