When they were up they were up. When they were down they were down….

Universities have agreed that the number of candidates awarded first class degrees and 2:1s should be drastically reduced. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2022/jul/05/proportion-of-top-degree-grades-in-england-could-fall-by-nearly-25

Universities UK and GuildHE, bodies representing institutions across the higher education sector, have jointly announced plans to return to pre-pandemic award grade levels. It’s reported that the proportion of top degree grades awarded to undergraduates in
England could fall by nearly 25%.

When A-level results are published later in the summer there are likely to be similar downward ‘adjustments’ with thousands of students, many who have already been told that nothing but a very top grade will get them into a Russell university, remaining disappointed.

While this is being seen as a necessary post-Covid measure, the official aim being to reverse ‘grade inflation’, restore ‘public confidence’ and ‘maintain standards’, there is a much wider context. This speaks volumes about the role qualifications now play in regulating access to further opportunities for young people as they seek to make the transition from one stage of education to another and ultimately access the labour market. Young people have found that though they’ve needed to achieve more and more to move up the ladder, they could still end up confronting a snake. In otherwords, rather than standards needing to be maintained, standards have been continually rising. Or to put it slightly differently, more students have been meeting them.  

In earlier (and more prosperous) times, increased participation in education was seen as a way of both integrating people into a changing occupational structure, one where white-collar, professional and managerial jobs were expanding, but also reducing some of the relative inequalities in society. As a consequence, increases in performance levels were to be celebrated. But these days, because employment opportunities do not keep up with the level of qualifications obtained, the opposite is the case.

This has resulted in a Great Reversal in the role education plays in society, a process that has been going on for some time.  For example, over ten years ago, then education minister Michael Gove introduced ‘comparative outcomes’ into English public examinations. From now on, unless special circumstances could be proved, the distribution of exam grades would be held in congruence with the previous years. In addition, assessment would become more traditional, with teacher assessment and coursework (for most of the post-war years considered an important part of comprehensive education but now seen as responsible for grade inflation) abolished.

But alongside increasing competition between schools (the so called ‘marketisation’ of education), other policies have been important. In particular, the attempt to price young people out of higher education through exorbitant fees, but also, the creation of new ‘advanced’ and ‘higher’ vocational qualifications as alternatives – even though the ‘middle jobs’ with which these are considered to correspond have been increasingly disappearing.  Meanwhile, parts of higher education have been criticised for not providing ‘value for money’ or not being vocational enough.

However, these initiatives have failed. Young people still consider education to be the main vehicle for ensuring individual progress in society and will seek to acquire those qualifications that are considered high status. Unlike some other countries, there are no real alternative routes into the labour market, there is no properly coordinated apprenticeship scheme for example and more (most?) full-time ‘core’ jobs are being ‘graduatised’.  Yet without major changes to the economy and to labour market recruitment, the post-war model of education is unsustainable.

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