Grade inflation or more hard work

Last summer 29.6% of students taking A level Physics gained an A* or A grade in the examination. However, just 10.6% of students taking Media, Film and TV Studies that achieved the same grades. It’s worth recalling these figures when reading the reports of grade inflation in universities with more students than ever achieving First class honours degrees. (source for A level data: Source for University data: HESA) Agreed, the extra 4,000 student studying Physics at A level in 2016 compared with 2010 may be partly responsible for the decline of 3.5% in the number of A* and A grades during the same period, but that is to be expected with a widening of the pool of entrants into the examination. However, the top grade is open to all. Maybe there is some degree of selection here with only those needing the subject for university traditionally taking it at A level.

So, does the increase in student numbers at universities mean there is grade inflation and more should mean greater numbers of lower grades? In the end it depends upon what you want the marking system to achieve. Traditionalists, may want a normal distribution curve of outcomes with a bunching around the middle grades and only limited numbers expected to achieve the highest grades or to fail. This system is great for identifying the really high flyers, but does it disincentive everyone else? Should degree class reward hard work and are students working harder now that have to bear the cost of their university education through the fee system? Has a competitive job market through the years of the recession also signalled to students that outcomes rather than just the university experience matters? This takes us back to the A level results. Are there too many A* and A grades in Physics? Of course not.

Perhaps students are becoming pickier at both choosing courses and even modules within courses with a view to outcomes? To what effect does ‘drop out’ among student affect the outcomes of those that remain. Do students realising they selected the wrong course, perhaps during clearing, quit in larger numbers. We know students from poorer backgrounds are more likely to quit. Is this because they received poorer advice about which course to pick at what university and ended up doing the wrong subject?

There is lots more to explore behind the simple headline data. But, maybe there has been some grade inflation and university quality control mechanisms need to ensure that outcomes keep pace with learning. After all, that is what the external examiner system was supposed to achieve. What do these figures also say about the claim that A levels were being dumbed down and students were arriving at university knowing less and less well equipped for university life? Interestingly I had a conversation on LinkedIn about this point with a teacher in Essex recently.

Personally, I think the outcomes are a tribute to our students, but universities do need to ensure that they monitor their learning outcomes to keep pace with changes elsewhere.

Tuition Fees rethink

One of the most spectacular policy announcements of the recent general election campaign was Labour’s offer to scrap tuition fees for new students and abolish outstanding repayments for graduates. There was no attempt to link this to the NHS and social care funding crisis as the other great funding need. There was also no real vision for how this would sit alongside the need to remove the cap on public sector pay. However, it seems to have worked, like most much announcements, in this case attracting many young voters that would benefit from any removal of fees.

I notice that the Tory press has taken to blaming the Lib Dems for the present university student fee levels, this despite the fact that it was a decision of the coalition government, albeit taken by a Tory minister and presumably approved by both a Lib Dem Secretary of State and the Cabinet as a whole.

One of things that riled me at the time of the fee hike was the lack of any discussion on why classroom subjects should be assumed to cost the same as laboratory and practical subjects? I wonder if ministers thought the market would drive down prices but, as I have pointed out before, with demand far exceeding supply, there was no incentive for any university to anything other than tinker at the edges with the £9,000 fee levels.

So, are such fees justified for arts and humanities subjects? Well, much depends upon the size of the group and the number of hours taught. Fees at this level should allow for minority subjects cross-subsidised by more popular courses and lots of options within courses, even if only 25% of the fee income goes directly to teaching and the rest to legitimate university and departmental overheads. Of course the level of salary and the mix of experience of teaching staff also play a part, as they do in school finances. One cannot help feeling that universities are possibly also possibly funding future capital programmes and increasing their surplus funds from the fees being paid by current students. Both seem to me good reasons for re-assessing the balance between the price paid by students and the eventual cost to government.

I think university accounts should be much more transparent on how fee income is spent, especially between different types of course. Many years ago, I conducted research into the funding of teacher education courses and it was clear that at the £3,000 fee level universities that paid a fee to schools could not cover their costs and had them written off each year by the central administration. It would be interesting to repeat that exercise on the £9,000 fee level.

Personally, I think that there is a case for fees to be in the £6,000 range, to allow for funding of free nursery education that might be a casualty if fees were to be abolished, with a direct government top-up for specified STEM and other more expensive subjects that universities might need encouragement to develop. I certainly don’t want undergraduates subsidising either the summer conference trade or in most cases either research programmes or postgraduate taught courses.


What happens to graduates?

Last week the DfE published and interesting bulletin about graduate outcomes for all subjects by university using three time periods. The full details can be found at However, there needs to be a word of warning for anyone looking at the ‘Education’ information. Firstly, this should relate only to undergraduate outcomes, so PGCE and similar courses ought to be excluded, unless they are specifically a first degree outcome. Secondly, the JACS code used for ‘Education’ annoyingly covers both courses leading to QTS and those that just relate to the academic study of education in some or all of its guises. This lack of demarcation between professional and non-professional degrees is somewhat irritating, as at some universities there are students on both programmes and it seems impossible to differentiate their outcomes. This also makes comparing the education data with other subjects less than totally helpful.

However, Education, along with nursing, has a relatively flat profile in relation to median earnings five years after graduation. In subjects, such as law, the profile is exaggerated at both ends, with Band one universities providing the bulk of those at the higher end of the scale, with band two and three universities more frequently towards the lower end of the scale. Indeed, in law, the difference is around threefold in earnings with the median at the top end being around £60,000 after five years of graduation from one university. For Education, the highest median is around the £35,000 mark.

In most subjects, male graduates earn more than their female companions who studied alongside them as undergraduates. Indeed, for all subjects except English Studies, male median earnings exceed female median earnings at more than 50% of institutions offering that subject. In 12 subjects, male earnings are greater than female earnings at more than 75% of institutions.

It is in the remaining in employment information that the lack of separation between those on professional education degrees and others may be more starkly seen. Nursing degrees score the highest in terms of those with sustained employment or further study. Education graduates while towards the top of the list are probably not as high up the table as they would have been if those on QTS courses had been considered separately.  Hopefully, the work that the NfER are doing at present on retention in teaching compared with other professions may throw some light onto this question.

For the graduates of 2008-09 that entered the job market in the depth of the recession, those with education degrees seem to have managed relatively well in terms of sustained employment, with only a relatively small proportion being self-employed. By contrast, those with degrees in the creative arts and design had the lowest proportion with sustained employment of study and a relatively high proportion of self-employed graduates.

This is interesting research from the DfE but, apart from the issue of professional and non-professional degrees in the same subject area there are also issues such as the subjects where a percentage of graduates may be working overseas after five years and not likely to feature in the data collected. Still, this looks like an exercise that will reveal the graduates most likely to repay their student loans.


Your future their future

Seventeen years ago this October the government of the day launched one of the most famous teacher recruitment campaigns ever with the ‘talking heads’ cinema commercial and an endorsement from Tony Blair. This year the campaign slogan is ‘Your future their future’ and in place of cinema adverts there is a film available to view on YouTube, 4OD and Sky Go as well as milk round events and I am sure posters and other advertising media. In case you missed the announcement from the NCTL it can be found at I confess to being at a round table in the DfE that day, but nobody mentioned the campaign launch, so it wasn’t as high profile as in 1997 when the then TTA hired part of the new British Library building for the launch event. But money was nowhere near as tight then.

The launch of a more high profile – well hopefully more high profile – campaign than in recent years to attract applicants to train as a teacher no doubt reflects the growing anxiety within government about recruitment this year. Starting early for 2015 recruitment at the time when finalists are thinking about their futures makes good sense. The immediate impact of the campaign won’t be known until the new recruitment round opens through UCAS later this autumn. After the last set of UCAS data on the 2014 round are published at the end of this month this blog will discuss its reflections on the process compared with what went before.

There have been many different recruitment campaigns around the world to attract potential teachers into the profession. You can see some of them at including ones with strap lines such as: ‘work with the most exciting people in the country; ‘there are many perks to being a teacher’ – I wonder what the Advertising regulatory authorities would say of one like that now? My favourite was the poster with the line ‘the dog ate my homework’ that doesn’t seem to feature in the collection displayed.

The challenge for campaigns recruiting people to the teaching profession is that they have to appeal to potential undergraduates, new graduates, finalists and career changers. While younger age groups might respond well to a social marketing campaign using twitter, facebook, and other social media sites I probably haven’t heard of, career changers may relate better to campaigns in more conventional media sources. 4OD and Sky Go are interesting new locations to place a film about teaching. Using a high profile teacher from a TV series about Educating Yorkshire will help with those that remember the series, but how many undergraduates watched it last year?

I hope that the new campaign not only goes on to win awards but also helps remind everyone that teaching is a great career. If it doesn’t, then this time next year we will still be discussing the recruitment problems facing schools and the profession. Good luck.