Grade inflation and social justice for the college HE student - Tom Feldges

Writing in The Guardian Weale (2018) reports on grade-inflation at UK universities. She provides examples, amongst them one university where the percentage of first-class degrees has risen from five percent in 2006/2007 to a staggering twenty-eight percent in 2016/2017. The growing concern around this issue has led to Ministers moving in to address the problem. There could be unjustifiable inflation here but value is also relevant - the extent according to which exit grades are sufficient to enhance future life-chances for those achieving them (Kurtz, 2004). This think piece looks at these issues from the college higher education (CHE) context.

In the most general way, grade-inflation constitutes an erosion of the established assessment and measurement tool in the form of HE exit grades. A tool that becomes imprecise and loses its discriminatory powers and thereby its validity for educational purposes. This is concerning for at least two reasons, one linked generally to the assessment-issue, the other one related to the question of social justice.

Social justice addresses the relation between individual and society in such a way that a fair and ethical distribution of wealth, opportunities and privilege is achieved (Nash, 2010). Weale’s grade-inflation would thus deprive all the students who worked hard to earn their high-grade degree of the benefits that such an achievement is supposed to bring, when compared with others who worked less hard and obtained such a grade nevertheless, because of this inflationary shift. The fact that the former would need to compete with the latter for positions within the labour market is what constitutes the danger of a looming social injustice.

However, that only holds if one is willing to ‘buy into’ a specific form of ‘elitism’ (Bruce and Yearley, 2006), whereby an intellectual elite, as marked by high exit grades, has indeed an entitlement to better jobs than those who mostly benefited from the bemoaned grade-inflation. Note here that such an intellectual elitism must not necessarily stand in opposition to the notion of a meritocracy (Fichte, 1808). Meritocracy is used here to capture the ruling or intellectual leadership by a class of educated and able people. Nevertheless, when it comes to securing an aspired position in the labour market, it is widely known that employment-relevant and individually held capital is not assessed via the exit grades of an undergraduate university education (Bourdieu, 1986). That is, a job-applicants’ cultural, social and human capital is highly significant regardless of any grade inflation.

Employers need suitable selection processes. When it comes to the high-end erosion of exit-grade validity, employers may utilise other, less reliable and credible factors for their screening processes, including perceived cultural capital. These other factors may inadvertently, or even purposively, contribute towards the re-establishment of traditional class structures, including the significance of family background rather than their strict intellectual abilities. Grade-inflation thereby contributes significantly to the danger of eroding a presumably socially just model of meritocracy. And this is likely to have a stronger negative impact upon students from college higher education (CHE) and widening participation (WP) backgrounds, as they often lack the relevant form of capital and the privileged background.

But there are perhaps more significant issues at stake here. Luhmann (2010), prior to this now apparent grade-inflation, acknowledged that upward social mobility remains closely linked to academic achievement. Arguably this holds across the spectrum of all pass-grades, regardless of the actually achieved individual grade. If CHE/WP students from disadvantaged backgrounds perceive the completion of a bachelor’s degree as an entrance ticket to an otherwise unobtainable job, then grade-inflation becomes problematic at the lower end as well – not just in the hike from 2:1s to firsts.

At the lower end of degree classes equally precise discriminatory powers are needed to differentiate those who worked hard for their grade, to distinguish them from those who did not but who still achieved a degree. The decreasing validity of exit-grades thus disadvantages engaged and committed but low-scoring students by throwing them into the same mould as those who merely ‘sat it out’ and obtained their degree because of the (lower-end) grade-inflation. The individual aspects of such an outcome, not rewarding committed students sufficiently, is likely to yield a negative impact upon the students’ ‘will to learn’. Students will probably just do just enough to ‘get by’. However, that would hollow out what HE is supposed to be about, i.e. the transformation of a student into a Bachelor with specific practical and intellectual abilities (Barnett, 2007).

This is where the issue of social justice – or the lack thereof – manifests itself most prominently. It is not just a question of ensuring that the most qualified get the best jobs. The current grade-inflation debate - focused more on the number of firsts - is skewed by a middle-class perspective that fails to appreciate the full range of genuine achievement, including low pass-grades. The current debate remains ignorant to the potentially important benefits that even low-scoring degrees may have for students’ further life-chances. These students need their achievements protected from grade-inflation, just as much as any other student, particularly when the learning gain and value for many of them can be huge.

Tom Feldges is lecturer at the North Lindsey University Centre, part of the DN Colleges Group.


Barnett, R. (2007) The will to learn – Being a student in an Age of Uncertainty. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Bourdieu P. (1986) The forms of capital. In: J.G. Richardson (ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. New York: Greenwood Press, pp. 241-258

Bruce S. and Yearley S. (2006) The Sage Dictionary of Sociology. London: Sage.

Fichte, G. (1808) ‘Reden an die Deutsche Nation’. In F. Unruh (Ed.) (1935). Fichte – Eine Textsammlung. Stuttgart: Gutbrod Verlag.

Kurtz, T. (2004) Zur Respezifikation der paedagogischen Einheitsformel. In D. Lenzen (Ed.) (2004). Irritationen des Erziehungssystems. Stuttgart: Suhrkamp.

Luhman N. (2010) Das Erziehungssytem der Gesellschaft. Suttgart: Suhrkamp.

Nash K. (2010) Contemporary Political Sociology. 2nd ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Weale S. (2018) UK universities face grade inflation crackdown [online at:] The Guardian [accessed at: 22.10.2018]