Page last updated at 13:01 GMT, Wednesday, 2 July 2008 14:01 UK

E-mail leak of 'degree inflation'

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

The leaked e-mail shows the demand for more top degree grades

A leaked e-mail shows how university staff are being urged to increase the number of top degree grades to keep pace with competing universities.

The internal e-mail from Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) tells staff to "bear this in mind" when they do their student assessments.

The university told the BBC this was in no way related to university policy.

Last week, the higher education exams watchdog warned that the university grading system was "rotten".

We do not award as many Firsts and 2.1s as other comparable institutions so there is an understandable desire to increase the proportion of such awards
E-mail to staff at Manchester Metropolitan University

The MMU e-mail, sent to computing and mathematics staff by that department's academic standards manager, calls for an increase in the number of first class and upper second degrees.

The e-mail, sent several months ago and now obtained by the BBC News website, reveals how staff have to consider more than the quality of students' work - and the tension between academic standards and universities' external ambitions.

Student satisfaction

"As a university we do not award as many Firsts and 2.1s as other comparable institutions so there is an understandable desire to increase the proportion of such awards," it says.

"Please bear this in mind when setting your second and final year assessments, especially the latter."

The e-mail goes on: "We have never received any external examiner criticism that our 'standards' are too low so there should be quite a lot of leeway available to us all when assessments are set."

The e-mail also includes a joke about boosting the student satisfaction rating. Earlier this year, staff at Kingston University were caught urging students to falsify their responses to improve the university's standing in league tables.

It says: "Please do not complain when all the BSc (Hons) mathematics students gain first class awards next summer. Now that really would increase our student satisfaction!"

Higher grades

The leaking of the e-mail provides further evidence of the concern among academics over the pressure to manipulate degree awards to improve the public image of universities and to make them more attractive to applicants.

The number of students achieving a first class degree at UK universities has more than doubled since the mid-1990s.

Among last year's university leavers, 61% achieved a first class or upper second class degree.

Such is the level of concern that Phil Willis, chair of the House of Commons select committee on innovation, universities, science and skills, wants to examine the threat to higher education standards.

Manchester Metropolitan University confirmed the e-mail was genuine.

A spokesman said: "This is an informal comment by a member of staff below the level of head of department to immediate colleagues.

"It is merely the interpretation of a single member of staff which reflects the increased awareness of comparable and publicly-available statistics, and in no way relates to university policy.

"Decisions about degree classifications are made by boards of examiners in accordance with the university's assessment regulations, which specify how classifications are determined."

Financial pressures

This is the latest warning about university standards, following a whistleblower's account of postgraduate degrees being awarded to students who could barely speak English.

This prompted thousands of academics and students to get in touch with the BBC with their own worries - including that financial pressures were leading universities to recruit and pass overseas students who did not reach the adequate academic standards.

The response from BBC News website readers also included e-mails showing how an external examiner had been persuaded to change her mind over criticisms of a degree course.

Many have described the conflict of interest between universities' self-regulation on degree grades and their need to compete in league tables.

The chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, Peter Williams, reflected some of these concerns about an over-dependence on overseas students.

He was also explicit in his criticism of the current system: "The way that degrees are classified is a rotten system. It just doesn't work any more."

Send us your comments on this issue, using the form below.

All HE and FE institutions in the UK are under pressure to bend the rules on assessment because they lose money if a student fails. This situation has been going on for a long time and is seriously undermining the credibility of qualifications in the UK and damaging our reputation abroad. What is urgently needed is a simple reform: that no institution should be responsible for the assessment of its own students. Government should step in and impose a much more rigorous regime of assessment.
Peter, London

I have attended courses from this department and know that it has been very well regarded. It should be held in mind that they have been asked to inflate grades but does not give information as to whether they complied or not. Of course the indication is they are being strict with handing out higher marks.
Quag, Linton

I am an employer who usually recruits degree level staff. Assuming you are getting an education to get a good job, like it or not, at the end of the day it's the opinion of people like me that counts. And this is the actual grading system in use:
1st - Candidate actually tried & is at least reasonably intelligent.
2:1 - Candidate turned up for many of their lectures and did a bit of work.
2:2 - Mostly didn't even show up as too hammered from SU bar.
3rd - No one puts this on their CV, they simply say they passed. in our opinion they failed miserably and it is worse than them having nothing.
If Unis continue to try to be smart Alecs with the grading we'll simply lose all faith in the system and soon a whole new industry will grow up around intelligence testing for recruitment :-)
Barry, Woking

Having completed an HND at night-classes four years ago, I was struck by how hard it was to actually FAIL an assignment! Students could resubmit an infinite number of times as the college was reluctant to fail them and jeopardise its "pass rates" in the HE college league tables. As a result of this I feel that my HND is not worth the paper it is written on. If this is the same with degrees/diplomas and other HE awards, it just makes a mockery of the whole system. How can employers sort the wheat from the chaff, when candidates all have lists of qualifications as long as their arms?
Debbie, Durham, England

The reputation of the university still matters a great deal. I doubt many would be employing someone with a 1st from Manchester Metropolitan University over someone with a 2.2 from Cambridge.
Kirk, Amsterdam

All I can say I wish grade inflation had affected me...I have just been awarded a 2:2 after working very very hard...I was one mark (.5%) short of achieving a 2:1 and feel totally let down by my institution and myself. I wish I had spent my time in the pub like my friends who all got 2:1s. Effort should be a factor in deciding grades, not budgets and attendance.
Hannah, Kent

Hannah, maybe your mates are a bit more clever than you. Your final marks should be reflecting the answers you have given to the questions, nothing more, nothing less.
Stan, Manchester

Having previously worked at a university assisting postgraduate students to obtain work experience, I found it almost impossible to find anyone that would employ the international students, because of their poor language skills. I couldn't understand how these students had passed a language test, and a complete waste of time trying to secure work experience alongside their postgraduate qualification.
Anon, UK, Bristol

I took an MA course at a London university and found I was the only native English speaker. The academic level was poor, discussions were of a shockingly low standard and I thought at the time, seven years ago, that levels were falling. This is nothing new and shows that the English education system has been decline for a number of years and that universities are more interested in money rather than statndards, reflecting the general attitude of the country at large.
Bill, London

This just so cheapens that university's degrees that it will no longer be accepted by the international community.
Ishkandar, London

I couldn't agree more, I have completed an MA at a reputable university and at least half the people on the course did not have conversational English. As a result, my degree was a complete sham, I could have done it part time with my eyes closed.
Luke, Halifax

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