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Watchdog set to clamp down on universities with ‘artificial’ grade inflation

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent
England’s higher education regulator will clamp down on universities with artificial grade inflation, or where the quality of courses falls below expectations, under tougher proposals.

The Office for Students (OfS) has set out proposed new requirements to allow the watchdog to intervene more frequently in English universities and colleges to protect quality and standards in higher education.

The proposals – which are now open for consultation – include new detailed conditions of registration for quality and standards.

Institutions that fail to address concerns about artificial grade inflation or poor quality could potentially face monetary penalties, or they could have their registration revoked, the OfS said.

Under the plans, universities and colleges in England would be required to ensure students are assessed effectively, and that they receive “credible qualifications that stand the test of time”.

Institutions would also have to “mandate a high-quality academic experience”, where courses are up-to-date, effectively delivered, provide challenge, and equip students with the skills they need.

In November last year, the OfS consulted on the broad principles of its approach to quality and standards. But now the regulator has set out the proposed conditions of registration.

Lord Wharton, chair of the OfS, said: “Our proposals signal an important step change in the way the OfS regulates quality and standards. They set out clearly the requirements we consider necessary to protect the significant investment of students and taxpayers in higher education.

“They also provide the platform for us to intervene robustly and confidently where we see evidence of poor quality.

“Higher education courses must challenge students and equip them with the skills they need for a successful career. Students from all backgrounds must be supported to succeed without lower expectations for their academic achievement.

“The qualifications awarded by universities must be credible to the public, with no suggestion that students and employers are being short-changed by grade inflation. Our proposals are designed to ensure this is the case.”

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggest that more than one in three (35%) of students at UK universities gained a first class degree in 2019/20, compared with 28% in 2018/19.

This was more than double the percentage who gained a first in 2009/10 (14%).

The rise came after a number of institutions decided to take a “no detriment” approach on assessment due to the pandemic.

This approach typically ensured that students would be awarded a final grade no lower than the university’s most recent assessment of their attainment.

Lord Wharton said that the OfS has seen “too many examples” of concern to students – including courses not being delivered well, resources not being available, and assessment which is unclear or unfair.

He added: “The regulator must be able to investigate these concerns and we will do so vigorously. Where our requirements aren’t being met we will be unapologetic about using our statutory enforcement powers and explaining publicly the action we have taken.”

Universities and colleges in England must be registered with the OfS if they wish to access public funds, for example for their students to receive government loans for tuition fees.

The OfS has a range of powers to sanction institutions if they are found to have breached a condition of their registration, including financial penalties and revoking a registration.

The watchdog’s approach to the regulation of minimum requirements for student outcomes will be the subject of a consultation in the autumn.

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “High quality provision in a range of subjects enables every student to feel confident that their higher education course will help improve their life outcomes and lead to successful careers in their chosen professions.

“Our manifesto commitment is to drive up standards for all so I welcome the Office for Students’ consultation on regulating quality and standards which sets out foundations for driving up quality. We are clear this needs to lead to real results for students and universities.

“This work will go hand in hand with our plans to consult on further reforms to the higher education system, which we will be setting out in more detail in due course.”

A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “The UK’s world-leading universities are fully committed to upholding their high quality and standards and UUK will be working with our members to respond to this consultation.

“The overwhelming majority of courses are high quality and offer good value for students and universities are already taking steps to tackle the small number of courses which could deliver more for students, taxpayers and employers.

“The progress that universities have made in tackling grade inflation also demonstrates the sector’s efforts to ensure transparency, fairness and reliability in the way they award degrees.

“Regulation needs to remain proportionate to ensure universities can innovate, offer students choice, and focus on delivering high-quality teaching and learning without adding any unnecessary bureaucracy to staff workloads.”

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