Are degrees being devalued?

Are degrees being devalued?
Published: 28 June 2018

A recent BBC News article claimed that universities “risk losing their credibility” due to the rise in the number of students achieving firsts and 2:1 degrees over the last couple of decades. But to what extent are universities responsible for this perceived devaluation of degrees? Could there be other factors at play?

There has been an incredible amount of change in the sector over the last decade or so, much of which has arguably impacted the value of degrees. The removal of the cap on student numbers in 2015 is one of the more striking examples – if a high proportion of the population has an undergraduate degree, do students now need to invest in a postgraduate degree in order to distinguish themselves in a crowded graduate market?

Another example is the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), introduced last year in an attempt to assess teaching quality. It assigns universities Gold, Silver or Bronze awards, which will soon dictate how much universities can charge for degrees. One of the six metrics it looks at is student outcomes. With this in mind, it is inevitable that universities will want to give students higher marks. Equally, the perceived grade inflation could be down to better teaching. Of the 139 higher education institutions that have submitted to the TEF over the last two years, 122 were awarded Gold or Silver, meaning that the majority of UK universities deliver “consistently outstanding” or “high quality” teaching, learning and outcomes.

Keen to avoid negative results in the TEF and National Student Survey, many universities have invested heavily in their Student Services functions. As the ‘student-as-consumer’ approach becomes increasingly prominent, we are working on an increasing number of student-facing roles and are seeing a growing number of clients who want their professional services recruits to have commercial backgrounds. 

The increase in firsts and 2:1s may not be entirely down to grade inflation or policy implementation though. It seems more than a little unfair to attribute high marks to artificial grade inflation at a time when students are working much harder than their predecessors. It has been widely reported that their habits have changed significantly since the controversial introduction of £9,000 tuition fees in 2012. They are demanding more from academics and professional services, and working harder, in order to gain as much value for money as possible from a degree that will likely leave them around £50,000 in debt. 

With policymakers having taken steps to devalue degrees somewhat while also decrying the prevalence of firsts and 2:1s, it appears that higher education institutions are fighting an uphill battle. How universities will respond remains to be seen, but here’s hoping that they get top marks…

Clare Bromley is a specialist researcher in the Higher Education Practice at Berwick Partners 

Categories: Education Recruitment

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