Royal Society of Chemistry director of education and professional practice, Sarah Robertson responds to the Reform think-tank report 'A degree of uncertainty: an investigation into grade inflation in universities'.
We acknowledge that the data presented in the paper raise concerns about grade inflation that require analysis and would recommend that further research is conducted, in partnership with universities and a range of stakeholders in the HE sector, to understand better the specific contexts and reasons behind the data at subject and institution level.
As the professional body for chemistry in the UK, we take our role in setting standards extremely seriously – our Royal Charter states that we must “establish, uphold and advance the standards of qualification, competence and conduct of those who practise chemistry as a profession”.
We understand why the authors of this report would look to Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies (PSRBs) to help tackle grade inflation. However, we have serious concerns about the practicality of the recommended solutions, which are listed below.
Within chemistry, there is a great diversity of routes and courses such as BSc, MChem – both with and without industrial placements – and degree apprenticeships.
It is not clear that a single three to four-hour exam could robustly measure students' achievements in all of these routes and we believe they should be recognised for their academic attainment as a whole. This is a particular concern for a practical subject like chemistry.
We would encourage greater understanding of the data, causes and subject variations before assuming that a single national assessment is an appropriate solution.
Recommendations from Reform report: A degree of uncertainty
- The Office for Students should introduce a new ‘condition of registration’ that requires all Higher Education providers to only offer undergraduate degree courses that are formally recognised by an external body known as a ‘Designated Assessment Body’ (DAB).
- The new DAB would be given the power to set the standards required by all HE providers when offering each degree course and they can refuse to allow a provider to offer a degree course if their standards are not met. The Higher Education and Research Act (2017) should be amended so that the DABs are allowed to specify ‘sector-recognised standards’.
- Each DAB must design a single, national assessment lasting approximately 3-4 hours for each degree course that will be taken by all students studying towards that degree in their final year. This assessment would be worth no more than 10 per cent of the final degree mark for each student.
- The performance of students at each Higher Education provider on this new assessment will determine the proportions of each degree classification that the provider can award to that cohort of students. The proportion of classifications awarded at a national level for each subject would be: 10 per cent of students awarded a First; 40 per cent awarded a 2:1; 40 per cent awarded a 2:2; and 10 per cent awarded a Third.
- The Office for Students, supported by the Department for Education, should use the results of the new national assessments for each degree to produce a ‘value-added’ measure for each university that records the academic progress made by students during their degree course.
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