Since its inception in 2016, UKSCQA has led on programmes of work that support better comparability and reliability of degree standards. This has included:

  • a programme of work designed to support providers in protecting the value of their degrees by ensuring transparent, consistent and fair academic standards. This has been taken forward by Universities UK (UUK), GuildHE and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) on behalf of the full committee.
  • a project with Advance Higher Education (AHE) on the professional development of External Examiners, and
  • a project with UUK and GuildHE that studied the use of degree classification algorithms across the sector.

Transparent, consistent and fair academic standards

In January 2018, the UKSCQA launched a programme of work to explore the complex issues surrounding grade improvement and inflation. This programme was taken forward by UUK, GuildHE and QAA on behalf of the full committee. It was designed to:

  • clarify grade classification boundaries in use across the sector
  • make recommendations for the inclusion of criteria in credit and qualification frameworks
  • investigate drivers for the historical increases in the proportion of upper degree outcomes across the UK
  • propose a framework for how autonomous and diverse institutions working with funders and regulators can collectively control the risks of sector-wide grade inflation.

The outcomes from this programme were published in a series of proposals to the sector in November 2018, set out in the report “Degree classifications: transparent, consistent and fair academic standards” and then consulted upon with the sector. This was underpinned by research undertaken by Dr Ray Bachan of the University of Brighton. The consultation proposed strong action by the sector on behalf of the sector, students, employers, and the wider public in order to protect the value of a UK degree.

A statement of intent

Following this extensive work with the sector, in May 2019 the UKSCQA published a statement of intent to ensure transparency, reliability, and fairness in degree classification. A summary of the responses to the consultation was also published.

This statement of intent represents the UK higher education sector’s ongoing commitment to protect the value of UK degrees, and is signed by the sector representative groups and is endorsed by the UKSCQA. It is founded on the following principles:

  • Protecting the value of qualifications is in the interest of students – past, present and future – who deserve qualifications that they can take pride in
  • All higher education institutions are responsible for protecting the value and the sustainability of the classification system
  • Qualifications should be based on clear criteria that recognise, demonstrate, and celebrate academic stretch and success
  • Higher education institutions are responsible for awarding degrees that benefit from common arrangements to protect their value
  • The diversity of the UK higher education sector is a strength which is founded on shared, consistent, and comparable academic practices.

Read the full statement of intent

New degree classification descriptions agreed as a reference point for UK higher education providers

At its June 2019 meeting, the UKSCQA agreed that the set of degree classification descriptions consulted upon at the end of 2018, with some minor amendments, were an appropriate and important reference point and should be appended to the national quality frameworks:  the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications of degree-awarding bodies in England, Wales & Northern Ireland (FHEQ), and the Framework for Qualifications of Higher Education Institutions in Scotland (FQHEIS).

These degree classification descriptions set out the criteria students are expected to meet to receive a particular classification for Level 6 (Bachelor’s degree with honours) qualifications. These criteria will provide a vital tool for providers in ensuring the comparability and reliability of UK higher education qualifications.

The descriptions were developed over an 18-month programme of work between the sector, Universities UK, GuildHE, and the Quality Assurance Agency, which was closely overseen by the full UKSCQA.

It is essential that providers understand how these criteria should be applied within their national contexts. Therefore, the UKSCQA is currently developing information to be included in the FHEQ & FQHEIS to ensure that providers have the clarity they need.  The degree classification descriptions will be published in early Autumn 2019 within revised versions of these framework documents.

They will be subject to periodic review by the UKSCQA to ensure their continued appropriateness.

Support for external examiners

From October 2016, Advance Higher Education (AHE) has been working across England, Wales and Northern Ireland to facilitate a sector-owned process focusing on professional development for external examiners. This work is being undertaken by AHE on behalf of the Office for Students, Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, and the Department for the Economy of Northern Ireland. It is overseen by and receives its strategic direction from the UKSCQA.

The project has two interrelated parts:

  • working with higher education providers to design and deliver a generic professional development course for external examiners
  • exploring different approaches to subject-specific calibration of standards with external examiners.

Professional development of external examiners

Working with a variety of higher education providers, AdvanceHE have set up a new, generic external examiner professional development course. Now in year 3 of a 5-year programme, already over 1,500 external examiners have undertaken this course. This course is designed to support external examiners in discharging their responsibilities for ensuring the reliability and comparability of degree standards.

Current activity includes:

  • continuing the delivery of the course via institution-focused courses, regional courses and online
  • working with a number of institutions on a ‘develop the developer’ method, to support and ensure the continued sustainability of the professional development course. Over 30 providers have already progressed through this programme.

Calibration of standards

The subject-specific calibration of standards work includes:

  • work with a range of subject associations and Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies (PSRBs) to support subject experts in the approaches to the calibration of standards. Current partners include the Royal Geographical Society, Conservatoires UK, the Veterinary Schools Council, and the Royal Society of Chemistry.
  • exploring other possible approaches to the calibration of standards, for example calibration based in individual institutions or regional consortia.
  • trialling of a combined generic professional development course combined with subject-specific calibration.

Read further information on the project.

Degree classification algorithms

UUK, with support from GuildHE, undertook a UK-wide piece of research into the algorithms used by the higher education sector to determine honours degree classifications, (i.e. the criteria delineating first, upper-second, lower-second, third and ordinary-class degrees). This research was overseen by UKSCQA and involved systematic mapping of evidence on degree algorithms, as well as surveying and undertaking focus groups with institutions across the UK higher education sector. It sought to:

  • explain existing practices and trends in relation to the design of degree algorithms in the UK higher education sector
  • support institutional decision making on algorithms in the context of evolving quality assessment arrangements across the UK.

Based on surveys from over 70% of all UK degree awarding providers, and a further 15 interviews to understand exceptions and practices across the sector, the final report made the following recommendations:

  • higher education providers should ensure that their degree algorithms are transparent and accessible for students, staff and external stakeholders
  • processes and rationales for changing degree algorithms should be transparent and led by robust academic governance arrangements
  • principles of good practice for the design, development and review of degree algorithms should be considered for inclusion in a revised Quality Code to guide institutional decision-making
  • institutions should ensure that the rules governing the assessment of borderline cases do not inadvertently lower the threshold for degree classifications across the student population
  • further work needs to be done to understand the long-term drivers of grade improvement and inflation and to develop sustainable measures that can mitigate sector-wide grade improvement.

Read the final report. The outcomes from this work were taken forward in the UKSCQA’s subsequent programme of work to ensure transparent, consistent and fair academic standards.