Degree fail rates at low


Freedom of information requests have revealed the low number of students receiving fail grades, sparking fears of grade inflation at Lancaster university.

In the most recent academic cohort, zero masters students received a fail mark at the end of their studies, a substantial fall from a peak failure rate of 0.23% in the 2012-2013 academic cohort.

There has not been a single fail classification recorded in non-masters postgraduate courses for the last five years.

Postgraduate students pay higher fees than undergraduates, and provide a lucrative source of income for the higher education sector. A masters qualification from Lancaster can cost up to £21,500 per year for international students.

The average failure rate for undergraduate degrees was 0.55% in the most recent academic year. However this varied wildly from faculty to faculty.

The requests revealed that the faculty of Health and Medicine has not failed a single undergraduate student for four out of five of the last years.

The findings will raise fear of grade inflation at Lancaster University, potentially devaluing the degrees that students work hard to achieve.

The new regulatory body that oversees British universities, the Office for Students, has said that it will use its powers to fine, suspend or even deregister universities that failed to comply with regulatory standards.

“The new Office for Students will, as a matter of routine, undertake analysis of degree classification trends and identify any cases where the pattern may suggest good or poor practice,”

“The agreement of clear, sector-recognised standards will also be key to enabling the OfS to take strong regulatory action where grade inflation is happening.”

Earlier this year The Times revealed that a dozen institutions, including Oxford and Durham, did not fail a single undergraduate student. A member of Lancaster’s academic staff briefed to the paper that University management was keen to avoid awarding fail grades for the expensive postgraduate courses.

““We are under great pressure not to fail master’s students, even where they can barely speak or write English and their work is incomprehensible.”

Only four universities, out of the close to two hundred in the United Kingdom, had a fail rate of greater than 10%.

Former education minister Lord Adonis, who recently forced the resignation of the Bath Vice Chancellor following a campaign over her substantial pay rise, claims that failure rates show a flaw with the way universities operate.

“It is not credible that amongst thousands of students none, or virtually none, will fail to make the grade. This yet again raises the issue of university standards and universities’ obsession with simply milking revenue out of students without requiring enough in return.”

The amount of first class degrees issued by British universities has risen from under 10% before the turn of the millennium to 24% in the most recent figures.

The figures only count students who make it to the end of their degree before receiving a fail classification, a very small minority of students.

The worst offenders include the University of Surrey and the University of East Anglia, awarding first class degrees to 41% and 37% of their students respectively.

Lancaster University has in the past produced studies that purport to show little evidence of grade inflation, instead saying the increase in degree ranking reflected an increase in A-level grades

Universities have complete freedom over their degree-grading classifications, as they are independent bodies. Professor Smithers of Birmingham University has compared the current system as allowing schools control over what A-level results to give to their students

Other experts have blamed marking leniency on university ranking tables, which they say incentivise universities to relax grade boundaries

Shifts in student culture may also be responsible. At the Lancaster Student’s Union AGM last month, full time officers unveiled the results of polling carried out by the firm Red Brick Research to gauge student priorities.

They said that students have grown less keen on drinking and nights out over time, with an increasing preference for study. They acknowledged Sugarhouse has seen corresponding falls in attendance, especially on Saturday nights.

The increasing price of a degree may also be a factor, with an undergraduate degree from Lancaster now costing £9250 per year after Lancaster chose to raise fees in 2017, as well as an increasingly competitive labour market for graduates serving as an incentive to study harder.

Lancaster University put the results down to the strength of the University’s teaching and students:

“Lancaster attracts well qualified and highly motivated students and excels in teaching (awarded Gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework, the new government–led teaching rankings).”

“Our facilities such as the  library (rated #1 by students in the Times Higher Student Experience Survey survey) are designed to provide students with the support they need to do well. Lancaster also has the added benefit of a college system which gives students additional support throughout their time here.”

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