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Student News

All students should sit national exams to tackle rising first-class degrees

The proposals would mean that only the top 10% of students would get a first - is it a good idea?

national university exams

A new report has recommended that all final-year students sit a national exam managed by an official regulator, to tackle what has been described as "rocketing" grade inflation.

The number of firsts being awarded to students has more than quadrupled in eight years, and the report suggests nationally regulated exams would help to ensure only the very best students achieve top grades.

However, university leaders have suggested the plans would limit universities to a 'national curriculum' and limit their ability to choose what they teach.

How would the exams work?

exam hall at university

Credit: Cyblocker - Wikimedia

Currently universities create and regulate their own assessment methods - an exam in English Literature at the University of Cambridge could look radically different to an English Literature exam at Cardiff University, for example.

This essentially means that individual universities select their students' final degree grades, something which the report suggests is contributing to grade inflation.

The report, by think-tank Reform, proposes introducing a standardised national exam for each subject, which would ensure all students are tested at the same level.

The exams would be designed by professional bodies (for the likes of Law and Medicine) and by learned societies (for Humanities subjects).

The results of these assessments would determine which students are awarded each degree classification. The report suggests that the top 10% of students be awarded a first, the next 40% a 2:1, the next 40% a 2:2 and the lowest 10% a third.

Why are national exams needed?

The Reform report has suggested national exams as a solution to the problem of grade inflation, something which many think is reducing the worth of a top class degree.

A number of statistics show just how much the number of firsts has increased in recent years:

  • The proportion of students being awarded first-class degrees has risen from 7% in 1997 to 26%
  • In 1995, 40% of students were awarded a 2:1, now 49% receive this grade
  • This means that three quarters of students now receive a top class degree - compared to just 47% in the mid-90s
  • 40 universities give firsts to a third of all students
  • At 54 unis, the number of firsts being awarded has doubled or tripled since 2010.

The report argues that as the number of top class degrees increases, their value decreases in turn, creating a detrimental effect on both students and universities.

Tom Richmond from Reform and author of the report explained why the increase in high grades is so negative.

Rocketing degree grade inflation is in no one’s interest.

Universities may think easier degrees are a way to attract students, but eventually they will lose currency and students will go elsewhere, even overseas.

Why are top grades increasing so much?

graduate jobs

Figures show that the number of firsts sharply rose after the announcement of £9,000 a year tuition fees in 2010, suggesting that universities feel they need to hand out top grades to create better value for money.

The report also suggests that degree algorithms could play a big part. These are used to translate marks over the course of a student's degree into a final degree classification at the end.

Half of universities admit to tweaking these algorithms over the last five years, to make sure their students are not at a 'disadvantage' compared to students at other unis.

The report also highlighted the fact that borderline grades are often bumped up to the higher classification, and academics face pressure to give out higher grades, as key contributing factors.

Is it a good idea?

oxford top uk universities

Credit: Pablo Fernández - Flickr

While Reform believe the national exams will help halt this tendency to award top grades more easily, Universities UK, the representative body for UK universities, believes they will limit their freedom.

A spokesperson highlighted how the exams would essentially impose a national curriculum on all universities, and prevent them from teaching what they want.

The independence of universities to decide what they teach and how is at the heart of successful systems around the world, of which the UK is a leading example.

Different universities teach different curriculums that reflect their specialisms.

Universities cannot teach students according to a national curriculum while maintaining the breadth and diversity of courses that students and employers rightly value.

They also highlighted how universities already abide by standards put in place to ensure the quality of assessments, through the Quality Code and Framework for Higher Education Qualifications.

Universities UK are currently working on their own investigation into grade inflation, and are due to report their findings in September.

Do you think it's too easy to get a first? Do you think national exams are a good idea? Let us know in the comments!

Jessica Murray

WRITTEN BY Jessica Murray

As an Editor of Save the Student, Jessica Murray has written extensively on student money news and money-saving tips. She was co-host of our podcast, No More Beans, and is now a journalist at the Guardian. Her tips and insights range from fun guides for freshers, to information for graduates entering the workplace.
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