Justice Everywhere

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Grade Inflation, Market Ideology and the Contradictions of UK Higher Education Policy

Politicians blame academics for lowering standards, but it is caused by their own ideologically driven market reforms. A version of this post was published in the Guardian on Friday 12th July. 

The Education Secretary Damian Hinds has followed in an illustrious tradition of governments’ blaming Universities for the phenomena of grade inflation. Responding to findings by the Office for Students of an 80% rise in first class degrees (that the body claimed was ‘unexplained’), Mr Hinds attributed this problem to ‘unfair practices’ by universities. It follows his comments last year that ‘institutions should be accountable for maintaining the value of the degrees they award’, with the threat of fines for institutions who fail to comply.

This neatly displaces the blame for a phenomenon which is fairly straightforward to explain. It relates to the agenda of marketisation that the government has enthusiastically promoted during its time in office. Since these policies have been enforced on the sector by politicians – in the face of much opposition – it is especially galling to hear government ministers bemoan their (predictable) effects as some pernicious form of malpractice, that Universities must ‘wake up’ to. Indeed, the problem of grade inflation is one symptom of a broader contradiction at the heart of neoliberal higher education policies, pursued by governments of both left and right over the last twenty years.

On the one hand, governments dating back to New Labour have placed an increasing emphasis on delivering ‘value for money’ to students. Linked to the political decision to introduce (in 1998) and then treble (in 2010) tuition fees, young people have been encouraged to view their education as a financial investment that should deliver a return – ideally a monetary return in the form of enhanced labour market prospects. These trends form part of a wider political rationality which understands education as a private good and seeks to re-imagine students as consumers and academics as service providers.

On the other hand, politicians such as Mr Hinds simultaneously bemoan a ‘lowering of standards’ in recent years, and generally blame this on universities. Moreover, market mechanisms – such as quantified performance indicators and league tables – are often framed as the solution to this problem which, by injecting competition, choice and market discipline into the sector, will drive up standards.

This confuses the disease for the cure. Marketisation has directly incentivised grade inflation and a lowering of academic standards. Neoliberal ideology has driven the rise of student satisfaction scores as a key component of University league tables. It is these processes of performance measurement and audit that now surround undergraduate teaching – that emphasise student (now consumer) satisfaction and employment outcomes as the mark of teaching quality – that have done most to encourage grade inflation. Generally, students that obtain high grades are employable and satisfied. These metrics thus promote a culture of spoon feeding, teaching to assessment criteria and generous marking practices.

A first-class degree is increasingly viewed as the ‘product’ that debt-burdened students (perhaps understandably) feel entitled to in return for eye-watering tuition fees. They therefore want to be told exactly how to obtain one and expect to receive it if they follow prescribed guidelines. It has lost its status as the mark of outstanding intellectual originality and flair. Most academics are immensely frustrated by these trends. Indeed, they often wish to mark more rigorously, so as to encourage independent thinking and intellectual risk-taking from their students. However, this would fly in the face of the professional incentive structure constructed by governments under the ideology of consumer choice.

This points to a fundamental contradiction in the notion of education as a private commodity. You cannot treat students as consumers while also safeguarding academic standards, as raising academic standards involves challenging students and taking them out of their comfort zone. Students who are being stretched in this way will not necessarily resemble the satisfied customers of a private business. Mainstream political discourse on higher education continues to see these two objectives – marketisation and the raising of standards – as complementary, when in fact they are contradictory.

This example also illustrates the wider contradictions at the heart of neoliberal governance. The introduction of market mechanisms into institutions that had been governed by an outdated ethos of public service was supposed to eliminate waste and drive up standards. Now that we have three decades of data on this unprecedented political experiment, it is evident that it achieves precisely the opposite: 1) the introduction of a slew of wasteful and tedious bureaucratic procedures, necessary to make the delivery of public goods artificially resemble a market; 2) a lowering of standards and morale as the professional values that used to govern the delivery of these goods are eroded.

Perhaps Mr Hinds should reflect upon these contradictions before placing the blame for grade inflation on academics.

David Yarrow

David Yarrow is a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, having completed a PhD at the University of Warwick in 2018. His research focuses on the emergence of post-growth accounting systems, and more broadly how economic thought frames political and ethical discourse in contemporary societies.

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